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Can Computers Replace Historians?


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A stereotypical view of a historian, by Maxfield Parrish.

A researcher says historians should view computer-based tools like the Google Big Query tool as just another technique for them to utilize, rather than as a threat to their professional expertise.

Credit: Haverford College

Computers have the potential to sift through the big data of history to help people spot patterns and determine what direction the world is heading in, according to Georgetown University researcher Kalev Leetaru.

Leetaru used the Google Big Query tool to crunch the GDELT database of media reports stretching back to 1979. "What we did here was use this tool to shove in a quarter of a billion records and use this massive piece of software to just in a few minutes sift out the patterns in this data," Leetaru says.

He says he uncovered complex patterns of events repeating themselves over the years by examining recent events in Egypt, the Ukraine, and Lebanon and attempting to draw common patterns. Leetaru cites the continued ups and downs in coverage of Ukraine as an example. "You don't see this traditional burst of interest and then tailing off, you see this complex up-and-down movement over the two months after the protests started and it turns out this predicts that entire complex up-and-down cycle," he points out.

Leetaru says although the idea that computing power and artificial intelligence can now start replacing some intellectual disciplines may be frowned upon, historians should view this kind of computational tool as just another technique rather than a threat to their professional expertise.

From BBC News
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