From prams to Parliament: what is a 'machine' anyway?

Living with Machines launches a new crowdsourcing task to rethink the impact of technology during the Industrial Revolution

Wednesday 09 Dec 2020

The Living with Machines project is rethinking the impact of technology on ordinary lives during the Industrial Revolution. Bringing together data scientists, curators, historians, geographers and computational linguists, the goal is to devise new methods in data science and artificial intelligence which can be applied to historical resources and produce tools and software to analyse digitised collections at scale for the first time.

Scientists from The Alan Turing Institute are collaborating with curators from the British Library to build new software which will analyse data from millions of pages of out-of-copyright newspaper collections from within the archive in the British Library’s National Newspaper Building, and other digitised historical collections, to track societal and cultural change in new ways. 

The project has hit a major milestone in its five-year journey with a newly launched crowdsourcing task which the public is being invited to take part in. These crowdsourcing tasks are a unique opportunity for the public to help researchers understand how people living through the Industrial Revolution talked about 'machines' in 19th century newspaper articles. Some of what they described as 'machines' may surprise you – from prams to Parliament – and algorithms can't yet understand what 'machine' meant in different contexts.

The tasks are simple and will create a lexicon (a ‘dictionary’ of words) about machines that will aid computational research at scale. The innovative and novel tasks have been designed to unearth new stories, looking beyond what is currently known to reveal a richer picture of our past. 

“The Living with Machines project is at the forefront of collaboration between libraries and data scientists. The tasks are a great example of this – they showcase our human ability to understand the meaning of words in context and the ability of computers to work at scale.”

Ruth Ahnert, Turing Fellow, Professor of Literary History & Digital Humanities, Queen Mary University of London and Principal Investigator on Living with Machines

“Most crowdsourcing projects ask people to 'type what they see', transcribing text or classifying images shown on the screen,” says Dr Mia Ridge, Digital Curator, British Library and Co-Investigator, Living with Machines. “Our tasks ask people to look closely at the content of an article to assign meaning to the 'machine' mentioned.
“This project uses the skill of reading closely to help develop computational language models to analyse data at scale. The tasks will get smarter over time as we analyse and learn from iterative results.”

The call to action

This ground-breaking partnership and bold research project which places ‘ordinary people’ at its heart is now inviting the public to join them in the following two tasks:

Describe it: transcribe a word or phrase from pre-selected newspaper articles to build a list of words used in primary sources. 

Classify it: apply a pre-set definition to help us understand how dictionary definitions match actual usage in newspapers.

Click here to take part

Find out more

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