Crowdfunding publisher Unbound has teamed up with an AI platform to inspire people to use artificial intelligence to solve Cain’s Jawbone, a literary puzzle that has only been solved by four people since publication in the 1930s.
Cain’s Jawbone is a novel by Edward Powys Mathers, then the Observer’s cryptic crossword compiler. It’s a murder mystery in which six people die, but it can only be solved if readers rearrange its 100 pages in the correct order. Unbound said the pages could be sorted to reveal the six victims and their respective killers “by logic and clever reading”.
On its website, Unbound described Cain’s Jawbone as “the most fiendishly difficult literary puzzler ever written”. Number of possible combinations of pages is a 158-digit number.
The novel became popular on TikTok after Sarah Scannell, documentary assistant in San Francisco, made a series of videos on it. Unbound reprinted 70,000 copies after TikTok posts.
Now Unbound has partnered with Zindi, an AI platform based in South Africa. Together they challenge people to put 75 pages of the novel into the correct order using natural language processing algorithms. Natural language processing is a branch of AI that examines the interactions between computers and human language.
Amy Bray, Zindi data scientist and technical lead for the partnership, said, “Natural language processing dates back to the 1950s, but most models like Bert were trained in modern language. I’m interested to see what techniques will be used on Cain’s Jawbone as the language is 100 years old.
The person or team that finishes the competition at the top of the standings wins $300. The contest opens on Thursday and ends on December 31.
Powys Mathers, who died in 1939, introduced cryptic crosswords to the UK in 1924 in the Observer newspaper under the pseudonym Torquemada.
As well as being a writer and cruciverbist, Powys Mathers was also a translator, responsible for an edition of One Thousand and One Nights in the 1920s, as well as other books.
In 1934, he published a selection of his puzzles – crosswords, “spooneristics”, “telacrostics” and other word games – under the title The Torquemada Puzzle Book.
The last 100 pages of the book contained his puzzle novel.
John Mitchinson, publisher and co-founder of Unbound said, “I wonder what Edward Powys Mathers would think of the idea of solving his fiendish book-length riddle using artificial intelligence? My hunch is that given his own bizarre ability to spot literary patterns, he would have completely approved.
Two people solved the puzzle shortly after the novel was published, winning £25 each. When a copy of The Torquemada Puzzle Book was presented to the Laurence Sterne Trust, Shandy Hall curator Patrick Wildgust set out to solve it. Once it did, Unbound re-released the title in 2019 with a £1,000 prize to anyone who could solve it within a year; the only person to do so was John FinnemoreBritish comedy writer and creator of Cabin Pressure on BBC Radio 4.