I, Historian: Researching the past in the age of Artificial Intelligence

Speaker: Dr David Brown, Senior Researcher at the Virtual Treasury of Ireland

Abstract: Although Artificial Intelligence (AI) burst into the public consciousness towards the end of 2022 with the launch of ChatGPT, a chatbot made by a company with close links to Microsoft, AI technology has been a core technology for the Virtual Treasury of Ireland since the early days of the project. Starting in 2018, the Virtual Treasury of Ireland has developed a suite of deep-learning ‘models’, perfectly curated transcriptions, to train an AI system to read digital images of historical sources relating to Ireland and convert these into searchable text files. The automatic conversion of handwritten historical documents into searchable text is the latest major step in the digitisation of our written cultural heritage. Digital images can be expensive to create, costly to store, and can degrade over time. Moreover, as digital images are so easy to produce, they have a habit of proliferating yet are no more searchable than the original records they were intended to be surrogates for. AI enables us to preserve all of the benefits of digital images while eliminating these drawbacks. The further digitisation of the images into text makes them searchable, portable and easy to store. This new ability to find a person, place or event among thousands or millions of pages of handwritten documents is the first step in an exciting AI-enabled world that will enable ever more complex historical hypotheses to be tested and questions to be answered. Emerging technologies such as the Large Language Models (LLMs), upon which ‘human-seeming’ interfaces such as ChatGPT are based, promise to enable ever more complex research questions at the touch of a button. Current research at the VRTI is demonstrating that LLMs can improve the accuracy of our transcriptions, summarize the most important information contained in dense and lengthy documents, extract people and places from text to incorporate into our Knowledge Graph and even sort documents into chronological order.

Bio: Dr David Brown is Senior Researcher at the Virtual Treasury of Ireland, a project based at Trinity College Dublin that aims to recreate a digital model of the Public Record Office of Ireland with its contents, destroyed in 1922. David has published widely on early modern empires with a particular focus on trade and finance and has been involved in digitisation projects, in various guises, for over 30 years.