Living with Machines

A five-year research project that will take a fresh look at the well-known history of the Industrial Revolution using data-driven approaches


The Alan Turing Institute and the British Library, together with researchers from a range of universities, have been awarded £9.2 million from the UKRI's Strategic Priorities Fund for a major new project. Led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), ‘Living with Machines’ is one of the biggest and most ambitious humanities and science research initiatives ever to launch in the UK.

The project brings together historians, data scientists, geographers, computational linguists, and curators to devise new methods in data science and artificial intelligence that can be applied to historical resources, producing tools and software to analyse digitised collections at scale.

Living with Machines has a particular set of research interests: specifically to examine the ways in which technology altered the lives and culture of people in Britain in the long 19th century (c.1780-1918). The project is marshalling a whole range of sources that have already been digitised from maps, census returns, newspapers, books and journals. While our data is historical, the questions are perhaps never more pertinent as AI is changing the way we live in the 21st century. 

Project aims

Its ten key aims are to:

  • Develop new computational techniques to marshal the UK's rich historical collections to enable new research questions to be posed.
  • Provide new perspectives on the effects of the mechanisation of labour and associated changes on the lives of ordinary people during the long 19th century.
  • Develop generalisable tools, code and infrastructure that can be adapted for and inspire future interdisciplinary research projects.
  • Create new methods for linking heterogenous data sets via toponyms.
  • Deposit enriched and interlinked datasets with the British Library for the use of all.
  • Create computational models to represent how language and meaning changes across time and geography.
  • Develop methods for working with maps and located sources as proxies to understand changes to the industrialising landscape.
  • Develop a coherent set of methods and recommendations for undertaking data-driven research in the current UK context of mixed-rights data access.
  • Build UK capacity in digital humanities through the development of tutorials and code to facilitate the research of the broader community.
  • Generate research breakthroughs to maintain UK global leadership in digital humanities and drive large-scale international partnerships and opportunities.


The research methodologies and tools developed as a result of the project are transforming how researchers can access and understand digitised historic collections. We offer not only a host of new software and methods for wrangling this data, but examples of how this changes the history we can tell. Find out more about software and methods.

Furthermore, we have sought to lower the bar to others trying to do this work in future in our forthcoming book Collaborative Historical Research in the Age of Big Data (Cambridge University Press, November 2022). The book discusses not only how to set up an interdisciplinary collaborative team, but also takes readers through the steps of getting hold of cultural heritage data and the infrastructure required. While it suggests a set of pragmatic strategies that projects can employ it also highlights some key structural issues that can only be addressed by a rethink of national policy and funding priorities in the UK. 



Ahnert, Ruth, et al. Collaborative Historical Research in the Age of Big Data. Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

Most recent articles, book chapters and conferences

Ardanuy, Mariona Coll, et al. “Resolving Places, Past and Present: Toponym Resolution in Historical British Newspapers Using Multiple Resources.” Proceedings of the 13th Workshop on Geographic Information Retrieval, Association for Computing Machinery, 2019, pp. 1–6.

Arenas, Diego, et al. Design Choices for Productive, Secure, Data-Intensive Research at Scale in the Cloud. arXiv:1908.08737, arXiv, 15 Sept. 2019.

Beelen, Kaspar, Jon Lawrence, Daniel C. S. Wilson, and David Beavan. “Bias and Representativeness in Digitized Newspaper Collections: Introducing the Environmental Scan.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, July 2022, p. fqac037.

Beelen, Kaspar, Ruth Ahnert, David Beavan, Mariona Coll Ardanuy, Kasra Hosseini, et al. Contextualizing Victorian Newspapers.

Beelen, Kaspar, Ruth Ahnert, David Beavan, Mariona Coll Ardanuy, Emma Griffin, et al. Living with Machines: Exploring Bias in the British Newspaper Archive.

Beelen, Kaspar, Federico Nanni, Mariona Coll Ardanuy, Kasra Hosseini, et al. “When Time Makes Sense: A Historically-Aware Approach to Targeted Sense Disambiguation.” Findings of the Association for Computational Linguistics: ACL-IJCNLP 2021, Association for Computational Linguistics, 2021, pp. 2751–61.

Boyd Davis, Stephen, et al. “Can I Believe What I See? Data Visualization and Trust in the Humanities.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, vol. 46, no. 4, Oct. 2021, pp. 522–46.

Coll Ardanuy, Mariona, Kasra Hosseini, et al. A Deep Learning Approach to Geographical Candidate Selection through Toponym Matching.

Coll Ardanuy, Mariona, Federico Nanni, et al. “Living Machines: A Study of Atypical Animacy.” Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Computational Linguistics, International Committee on Computational Linguistics, 2020, pp. 4534–45.

Coll Ardanuy, Mariona, Kaspar Beelen, et al. “Station to Station: Linking and Enriching Historical British Railway Data.” Proceedings of the Conference on Computational Humanities Research 2021, Proceedings of the Conference on Computational Humanities Research 2021.

View all Living with Machines publications

Recent updates

July 2022

Living with Machines exhibition now open

A new exhibition co-curated by the British Library and Leeds City Museum, and inspired by the Living with Machines research project, is open from July 29, 2022 to January 8, 2023 at Leeds City Museum. 

The Living with Machines exhibition reveals the surprising parallels between the Industrial Revolution and today’s world of ‘big tech’. Discover the origins of football leagues, fast fashion and the 9-to-5 working day and what they can tell us about surviving and thriving in a fast-moving city.

Find out more and visit exhibition

Humanity and technology: In conversation with Jo Guldi

Living with Machines invited you to join us for two events with Professor Jo Guldi, to hear first hand from one of the world's leading digital humanists. During this event, there were insights into recently published historical research on global land rights and land reform, and more about how the humanities is an area of extreme potential for growth in data science.

Event 1: Jo warned of an age of pseudo-history promoted by GPT-3 and easy algorithms, fuelling nationalism and populism. Jo contrasted the naive use of algorithms with 'hybrid knowledge': the exciting domain where data-driven analysis of large-scale textual repositories meets critical thinking from the humanities and social sciences. The event was suited for a cross-disciplinary audience. 

Event 2: Jo presented her latest book, The Long Land War, which tells a story as old as human history: the global struggle over food, water, land, and shelter. The Long Land War focuses on technology and expertise. The event was open to the public.


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