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UEA historian part of major new project

A historian from the University of East Anglia (UEA) is part of a major new project which has received £9.2 million of funding to look back at the first industrial revolution, helping to understand present day attitudes towards artificial intelligence and robotics.

Emma Griffin who is Prof of Modern History at UEA is one of two historians in the UK to be part of this ambitious project, which is set to be one of the biggest humanities and science research initiatives ever to launch in the UK.  

It’s hoped that by being able to track cultural and social change after the industrial revolution, it will provide context to debates around the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ which we are currently experiencing.

‘Living with Machines’ will take a radical approach to collaboration, bringing together data scientists and software engineers from The Alan Turing Institute and curators from the British Library as well as computational linguists, digital humanities scholars and historians from UEA, Exeter, Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London.

The work has been awarded funding from UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund and will take place over five years. The project aims to produce tools and software to analyse digitised historical collections at scale for the first time.

“The project is an innovative interdisciplinary collaboration, harnessing the skills of data scientists as well as humanities scholars.” said Prof Griffin.

“As one of two historians on the team, it’s my role to help select historical data to work with and to shape the research questions. Most of the sources that the project will work with are well known to historians. However, most historians don’t have the time to work with very large datasets, so my role involves explaining to scientists how historians would like to work with particular records, and why it’s important to us.”

In recognition of the significant changes currently underway in technology, notably in artificial intelligence, the project will use as its focus the century following the first Industrial Revolution, and the changes brought about by the advance of technology across all aspects of society during this period.

Initial research plans involve scientists collaborating with curators and researchers to build new software to analyse data drawn initially from millions of pages of out-of-copyright newspaper collections from within the archive in the British Library’s National Newspaper Building, and from other digitised historical collections, most notably government collected data, such as the census and registration of births, marriages and deaths.

The resulting new research methods will allow computational linguists and historians to track societal and cultural change in new ways during this transformative period in British history. Crucially, these new research methods will place the lives of ordinary people centre stage, rather than privileging the perspectives of decision-makers and public commentators.

For example, data-driven findings relating to how attitudes to machines and mechanisation changed during the nineteenth century could help present-day researchers and policy-makers to understand and unpick public understanding around current attitudes towards new technologies, for example autonomous vehicles or the use of artificial intelligence and robotics in everyday transactions.

Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, said: “We are delighted to be awarded this funding to embark on an ambitious programme of research with our colleagues from the Alan Turing Institute and from partner universities. By opening up our unrivalled collections to this unique collaboration between historians and data scientists, we hope to not only aid researchers and communities in their understanding of our shared past, but to pave the way towards revolutionising the future of historical research.”