In 2017, the History Channel began airing a documentary about a team of investigators who were using an incredible computer program to try and decode the Zodiac Killer's notes. While conducting his murder spree, Zodiac wrote taunting letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, many of which contained ciphers that no one has ever been able to crack.
The mystery of the Zodiac Killer has plagued detectives and investigators since the killer rose to prominence during the late '60s in Northern California. In order to decode the ciphers, scientists created an AI that mirrors the Zodiac Killer's brain. Specifically, they want to unlock what’s known as "Z340," as they believe it contains the identity of the mysterious killer.
To make their program think like Zodiac, scientists fed his writings into the the AI's “mind.” While the Z340 code still has yet to be cracked, one interesting side-effect is that the program is now pretty good at writing poetry. Yes, it’s as bizarre as you think it is.
Here are all the creepy facts about that Zodiac Killer AI you should become familiar with, just in case the program becomes more sentient...
The code that Kevin Knight and his team are trying to break is known as "Z340." This cipher was sent to the San Francisco Chronicle in November 1969, along with a short letter from Zodiac taunting the paper and asking them to print his cipher on the front page. If the paper refused to comply, Zodiac threatened to "do his thing."
Z340 is the white whale of the Zodiac Killer case. Many amateur cryptographers and investigators have tried to crack the code with no luck. After years of fruitless efforts, a supercomputer that thinks like Zodiac may be the last hope in deciphering the mysterious text.
The creator of CARMEL isn't some fly-by-night scientist who thinks he can run Z340 through his computer and come out with the original Zodiac text; he's a a proven talent in the world of cryptography. Before attempting to solve the Zodiac case he used CARMEL to decode the Copiale Cipher, a 105-page book featuring 75,000 complex, handwritten characters that sat unsolved since the 18th century.
The only pieces of the text that weren't encoded were “Philipp 1866,” written at the start of the manuscript, and “Copiales 3” at the end. The Copiale Cipher was solved after a chance meeting between Kevin Knight and the cipher's owner, Christiane Schaefer.
There were number of missteps along the way, but it only took Knight a few weeks to crack the cipher. Inside, he discovered that the cipher belonged to the Great Enlightened Society of Oculists, a secret Germanic order that was obsessed with the human eye. According to the group's internal writings, they even performed an early eye surgery.
At the onset of The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer, Kevin Knight, the expert in natural language processing who helped develop CARMEL, explains the way that his system works and it's somehow both incredibly complicated and fairly straightforward.
The program looks through a billion English words pulled from online material that is related to what it's researching. It then analyzes various letter statistics in order to discern "what good language looks like." By doing this, Knight explains, CARMEL is looking for a key that it can apply to Z340.
Not only have Knight and his team fed all of Zodiac's writings into the computer, they're uploading any and all information about the killer, so as to give the AI a better idea of what kind of person Zodiac was. This list of documents includes the killer's height, weight, and evidence from the killer's multiple crime scenes.
According to Knight, the longer the code, the easier it is to crack, as the program has more data to work with. For example, a 750,000-word code like the Copiale Cipher is bound to have a few words that repeat. Once the program figures out a repeated word, it can start plugging that word into different sentences in order to discern what the words around it mean.
At the time of the Zodiac murders, there was very little information about the killer available and any clues that were found were kept under wraps by local police departments.
In order to get as much information as possible about the killer, Knight and his team of researchers are working in tandem with two former law enforcement members who are reinvestigating the Zodiac Case. Sal LaBarbera and former FBI agent Ken Mains started their investigation in Riverside, California, at the site of what's considered by many to be the first "unofficial" Zodiac murder.
The two investigators believe that the murder of Cheri Jo Bates on Riverside City College's campus on the night of Oct. 30, 1966 was perpetrated before Zodiac had figured out how to cover all of his tracks. As the investigators discover new information about the murder — specifically new writings that the murderer may have left — they can send it to Knight and his team, who then feed it into their program.