Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Is an automated solution always better?

By the Mary Rose Trust, CC BY-SA 3.0,
A comment to one of my recent blog posts questioned the advances being made by the larger genealogical database companies in adding automated record hints and evaluations. The commentator said, "If everything in family history was automated there would be no point in doing family history. If one could simply log in and access ones family history compiled and certified automatically by computers what would be left to research?"

We should all hope that the someone out there would do "all our genealogy" for us, but I am certain that this will never happen. But the commentator went on to say, "But I cannot understand why there is a compulsion to analyze and make a deduction of the facts supplied. Surely that defeats the whole object of the hobby?"

In response, I would say that genealogy is much more than a hobby. I personally certainly do not put genealogy into the realm of handicrafts and scrapbooking, although there are many who treat it as a hobby. Just recently I spent about two hours helping another missionary at the Brigham Young University Family History Library to decipher some awfully bad handwriting from a Sicilian Parish Register. Also quite recently, I attended the BYU Family History Technology Workshop and heard several technical papers presented concerning the challenges of developing handwriting recognition software. I can assure you the programmers involved in trying to solve this intractable problem were not approaching family history as a "hobby." After listening to the challenges involved in developing a workable solution to handwriting recognition, I am confident we will still have a many difficult and overwhelming challenges left in doing our genealogy that will not be automated in the foreseeable future.

But I do think that the comment merits some consideration. There is an off-quoted statement which is possibly not true where Thomas Watson, the president of IBM in 1943 said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." See "The 7 Worst Tech Predictions of All Time." I could go on with the 1977 quote from Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation where he is reported to have said, "The is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." The point here is that we are presently only beginning to see the technological changes that will develop over the next year much less over any longer time period.

If I wanted to do so, I could use some antique woodworking tools and build a house the same way one was built in the 1600s. But would I want to? If my primary job was building houses, wouldn't I want all the latest tools? Right now, my primary job is doing genealogical research and I am more than happy to use whatever tools are available. I am excited to see the innovations and tools that are now available and I am anticipating a number of innovations in the future. By the way, I would rather live in my much newer home than one built in the 1600s also.


  1. "Surely that defeats the whole object of the hobby?"

    Yes, I used those words but to me family history, or as other call it genealogy, is an active part of my life and has been since I was an infant.

    Unlike others I was introduced to family history before I could read or write, I was encouraged to write by tracing parish registers in churches.
    I have spent weekends and school holidays washing tombstones searching in churches and churchyards for information as others would visit a cinema or the seaside.
    To me family history is part of life; it is also something I often do subconsciously.
    I also realise that to the vast majority of people genealogy is a hobby that they dip into for a few years or even ten or twenty years when they have the time.

    Family history is not based on facts like mathematics but is based on research and evaluating records which are uncovered, as with life many records purporting to be factual conflict with other records purporting to be factual.
    Computers are good at evaluating records but are limited by their programmers understanding of the various records.
    Computers are also unable to research as they rely on information being fed to them in a form they can use.

    One could say that family history is always developing as every new record that is discovered leads the research to re-evaluate what is already known and understood.
    Unfortunately none of the current crop of computers comes even close to re-evaluating what is already held in their databases and none as far as I am aware have been given any instruction as to why different groups of records have been kept or what they actually record.
    Without that knowledge computers cannot make valid evaluations.


    1. You are absolutely correct. What you are referring to is known as AI or artificial intelligence. As far as I know, no one has an adequate AI program for doing family history research.

  2. I am absolutely thrilled by the enhancements computer programs are making for family history. I especially love the matching of source hints to person records, arbitrated of course by a human. But really, the nature of FH has changed immensely. We used to have to go to the mountain of possible sources for our people, searching here and there, and sometimes being successful. (Mohammed went to the mountain). But now, especially with the Badges and campaigns FamilySearch is slowly releasing, the mountain (databases) of sources are being served to us on a silver platter. (sorry for the mixed metaphor) They tell me my ancestor is found in these sources. (the mountain has come to Mohammed) This indeed will hasten family history work.