Artificial history

Earlier this week I was at the Digital Nations 2030 conference in Auckland. There was lots of talk about the inevitability of artificial intelligence (AI), which got me thinking about how it relates to history as a subject. Here are a few bald statements and equally bald (and unanswered) questions about it.

Vincent O’Malley used and may have coined the term at a talk last year ‘Fake history’ when questioned by someone in the audience about the New Zealand Wars.

We know from fake news that the Right knows how to mobilise online, much better than the Left, and can flood social media feeds to the detriment of society.

Here in New Zealand, Hobson’s Pledge is a perfect combination of the two, flooding both mainstream and social media with interpretations of colonial and Treaty history that are both wrong and harmful.

Artificial intelligence, like it or not, is a thing. It’s happening (search results, image recognition, social media algorithms, Amazon suggestions are a few examples that most will recognise) and will only become more central to our lives (medical imaging and diagnosis, legal interpretation, internet of things).

As with many new technologies, the cultural sector will probably be slow to adopt it. Equally, the technology industry will probably be slow to see the potential of the cultural sector for AI applications.

How will the documentary heritage sector respond to this challenge? In a future where people will ask increasingly complex questions of their devices, what responses will they receive to questions like “when was New Zealand settled?”, “what caused the New Zealand Wars?”, “why did Māori sign the Treaty of Waitangi?”?

They’re significant and contested questions, central to how New Zealanders understand their country and place in it. But who will be providing the answers? And if (as I hope) it’s the history community and documentary heritage sector, what systems do we need to start thinking about now to meet it sooner rather than later?