• Tim Mueller

AI and the Renaissance of the Historian



"Data is the new oil."


Raise your hand if you’ve come across this trope at least a few dozen times in the news over the past year. Of course it would be totally and utterly unprofessional of me to suggest that the pervasiveness of the soundbite might make for a fun (non-alcoholic) drinking game to pass those dreary Canadian winter months in the office.


But guess what, though I’m scarcely the first one to have arrived at this or other conclusions discussed in this blog post: data is not the new oil.


Oil is a finite and non-renewable natural resource. Data, on the other hand, is the waste or by-product of human existence. If anything, data is the new CO2 (carbon dioxide), with the potential to suffocate us all one day.


Thankfully, a knight in shining armour has arrived, ready to tackle the challenges of ‘Big Data’ and save humanity in the process: artificial intelligence (AI). 


If you detected not-so-pointed sarcasm in the foregoing remark, you were meant to.


Are algorithms and machine learning critical for the management of the ever-growing sea of data? Yes, absolutely. There are simply not enough people, let alone trained professionals, on this earth to process the volume of data we’re producing on a daily basis.


Will AI ever pass the elusive Turing Test (developed by Alan Turing in 1950), and evolve from performing human-like tasks to becoming indistinguishable from human beings? No.


As a historian, I’m excited about the prospects (and challenges) that AI and the workplace of the future have in store for my profession. With automation threatening the jobs of so many, who would have ever thought that words of excitement are expressed by someone whose degree, let’s face it, doesn’t register particularly high on the Richter scale of “What do I want to be when I grow up?”


But the reality is, the study of history, the epitome of human thinking, will inevitably be on the rise – though probably not before the job description is spiced up a bit. Here are some leading contenders to think of when the time comes: digistorians (cue the eye roll), human learning experts, knowledge brokers, information aggregators, etc.


While some of these suggestions are made in jest, they shouldn’t belie the sincerity of this exercise. If data is to become usable data – turning CO2 into breathable O2 – a joint effort between scientists and engineers, on one side, and defenders of HI (human intelligence), on the other, is needed.


As seasoned data miners, whose knowledge repositories are moving or have already moved into the cloud, historians can play crucial roles in detecting and discarding false information (‘Fake News’). They can also contextualize past events in such a way as to prevent human bias seeping, irreversibly, into AI systems. If universities ramp up efforts to combine digital with soft skills, most critical among those are empathy and critical thinking, the historian of the future might even be tasked with establishing fair cybersecurity norms.


The morale of this story ultimately is: think critically about the analogies you encounter in the media; and, no matter how far into your career you’ve already progressed, it’s never too early to start imagining new applications for your skillset.  


Tim Mueller, a Senior Consultant with Saybrook Partners, is currently at work on a study of the Ford Foundation. This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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