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

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Comments on Family History in the Future

I was interested to read an article written by Paul Allen for the Deseret News entitled, "Family history in the future." I have long been a fan of Popular Science magazine but have always been amused by their predictions for the future. Some of the contraptions shown on the magazine cover over the years have become reality, but more frequently, the covers have not been very accurate. I also had an early interest in science fiction and one of the observations I have made over the years is that for the most part those who wrote science fiction, with a few notable exceptions, almost entirely missed the impact of computers. With this in mind, I thought some of the predictions made by Paul Allen to be on point, others not so close.

Near the beginning of the article there is a prediction that "computer scientists will invent automatic ways to intelligently find actual references to your ancestors and bring them to you – in some cases, without you having to perform a single search." Hmm. How many of us think that the search engines we have now are even adequate, much less automatic. How many "computer scientists" do you know who have an interest in genealogy? Not techs who are hired by genealogy companies, but ones that really spend a great deal of time doing genealogy? Computer programs work very lineally, I don't work that way. What is being talked about is in the area of artificial intelligence and although computers are getting "smarter" there is no reason to believe that Star Trek is just around the corner. Do you think a computer scientist who knows nothing about genealogy will find a way to do genealogical research? Maybe, but I don't expect to live that long.

Paul Allen observes that only a small fraction of the worlds records have yet been digitized. What percentage will have to be digitized before they read and digest the New England Town Records where my primary research interest has been in the past? Optical character recognition is still not perfect even with clear typewritten text and there are no programs that read old handwritten records with multiple authors even on the horizon. Unlocking those old records for computers will likely require a massive effort at transcription or it will be a long time coming. Printed material is another matter. Online searches in books and newspapers is a reality.

Allen observes that Google has a goal to finish scanning all of the world's books by 2020. I would point out that they don't presently have access to those books and they will have to solve the legal battles over copyright before those books are available. They do have a huge collection online, but I can show you a half a dozen books I have access to that are not even in All is a big word.

One comment in the article caught my eye referring to Facebook and Google+, "These kinds of sites will enable meaningful family conversations to take place around each piece of newly discovered content." He doesn't read the stream I get in Facebook or Google+. I'm sorry but I have yet to detect any meaningful family conversations. I guess in the best of all possible worlds that might happen but I do recognize that the network is a good way to find people with information. My discussions take place in person or by email.

There is one thing I totally agree with in the article, things will change and there will be ways to find information not dreamed of today. But as for any fancy computer programs or online services doing my genealogy, I doubt that will happen in my lifetime. Thanks to Paul Allen for making predictions. Predictions do serve a valuable place in any pursuit. I can dream of a time when many of the tasks I do by tiring effort may be more easily done by electronics. Keep dreaming and keep innovating. I am ready to adopt every technological improvement you can throw at me.

1 comment:

  1. As an SF fan and a long-time viewer of the covers of my uncles Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines, I relate strongly to you opening paragraph.

    Meaningful conversations about genealogy on Facebook are probably found on dedicated groups or pages, rather than on the wall. (You might wish to look at the "Dorrance-Pait Family Genealogy" page as a lowly example. Or the group "Genealogists in Second Life.") The wall on Facebook is less than meaningful in my personal opinion. Although I do find Facebook a useful tool.