Living with Machines: Unlocking the Human Story of the Industrial Revolution Through AI

Imagine delving into the Industrial Revolution not just through dry records, but through the anxieties and hopes of everyday people. 'Living with Machines', a groundbreaking project, uses AI to analyze vast historical datasets, trying to reveal how ordinary lives were transformed by this era of radical change. This unique collaboration between historians, data scientists, and linguists offers valuable insights for navigating our own age of AI and automation.

Living with Machines is more than just a research project; it’s a revolution in historical exploration. This ambitious collaboration between the Alan Turing Institute, the British Library, and several universities, aims to harness the power of AI to explore the human impact of the Industrial Revolution like never before.

Newspapers, census records, and mountains of books – transformed into vast datasets. But Living with Machines is not just about crunching numbers. The project uses AI as a magnifying glass, revealing hidden patterns and trends invisible to the human eye. The goal is to paint a rich and nuanced picture of the Industrial Revolution that focuses on the lived experiences of ordinary people. Their anxieties about job displacement, shifting demographics, and evolving cultural values emerge from the data, offering previously unseen insights into this period of radical change.

Radical or Ironic Collaboration?
Current discussions of the mechanisation of work can hardly be understood without looking back to when machines changed the course of humanity so thoroughly before: previous periods of industrial revolution reshaped society in ways which must have seemed unfathomable at the time. Studying this past with our contemporary technological revolution – AI – is a bold and perhaps prescient approach. However, it seems supremely suitable that mechanisation should be understood by more mechanisation. The Living With Machines project offers an important opportunity to develop new tools and methods to utilise AI carefully and sensibly, and to interpret information in a way that was previously impossible.

Living with Machines represents a hugely exciting and innovative development in arts and humanities research. The collaboration between historians and data scientists, exploiting the remarkable growth of digital archives, will open up dramatic new perspectives on the well-known story of the industrial revolution and the history of society’s relationship with machines and technology since the eighteenth century.

Professor Roey Sweet, Director of Partnerships and Engagement at the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Guiding the data-driven power of AI with the critical lens of the humanities is the aim of the project, with researchers hoping to reveal facets of the Industrial Revolution that may have eluded human eyes. It could show that anxieties surrounding new technologies are not unique to our age of AI and automation. Studying this period offers valuable lessons for navigating our own future, allowing us to approach the rise of AI with more informed perspectives.

  • Radical collaboration: In this project historians, data scientists, linguists, and others work together, sharing expertise and developing new methods. 
  • AI for Humanities: The project uses AI to analyse vast datasets of newspapers, census records, and books, revealing how ordinary people’s lives changed during the Industrial Revolution.
  • Humanities’ critical angle: Humanities researchers bring critical thinking and scepticism to data analysis, ensuring interpretations consider biases and limitations.
  • Lessons from the past: Studying the 19th century’s technological and social upheavals offers insights into our own era of similar rapid change, especially regarding AI and its impact on society.

A Legacy of Impact

Centrally to the project, reflecting our contemporary concerns, is the impact of machines on ordinary people. Whilst the impacts on productivity, commerce and economics are well understood now, the project really digs in to how technological change affected humans in real terms. Between 2022 and 2023, the project ran an exhibition in Leeds titled: Human stories from the industrial age, presenting a relatable picture of what technological advancement mean for daily life.

However, Living with Machines’ impact extends far beyond academic circles. It stands for the power of cross-disciplinary collaboration, the importance of critically examining data, and the enduring relevance of the humanities in an increasingly data-driven world. Moreover, the project itself has become a case study, producing a handbook on “radical collaboration” to guide future endeavours.

Living with Machines is about the future. Optimistically, it hopes to remind us that humans and machines can not only coexist but could thrive together through collaborative exploration and understanding. This project proves that using AI to analyse data can be a powerful catalyst for unlocking human stories and guiding us towards a brighter future. (also check the video)

Facts and figures

  • Project Name: Living with Machines
  • Funding: £9.2 million from the Strategic Priorities Fund of UK Research and Innovation.
  • Duration: 5 years.
  • Collaborators: The Alan Turing Institute, the British Library, University of Exeter, University of East Anglia, University of Cambridge, and Queen Mary University of London.
  • Objective: To develop new methods in data science and AI for analyzing historical resources, focusing on digitized collections to explore the social and cultural impact of the first industrial revolution.
  • Participants: Data scientists, curators, historians, geographers, and computational linguists.
  • Approach: Creation of tools and software for analyzing millions of pages of out-of-copyright newspaper collections from the British Library.
  • Lead Researcher: Dr. Ruth Ahnert, Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London.
  • Goal: To bridge the gap between computational sciences and the humanities through radical collaboration and to establish a new research paradigm.

For more information, visit the project website: Living with Machines​​​.

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