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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Can Computers Create and Maintain an Accurate Family Tree?

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During the past few years, we continue to see amazing advances in computer technology from self-driving cars to virtual reality experiences. Genealogists are certainly part of all of these changes. An interesting aspect of all these technological advances is that none of this was anticipated, even by the most imaginative science fiction writers. You only have to go back to some of the rather primitive technology in the original Star Trek series to see how much has changed in our present world.

Regularly, I talk to genealogists that, rather than embracing the new technology, are being dragged into the future kicking and screaming. Well, there really isn't much actual kicking and screaming going on, but none the less many genealogists are actively resistant to technological change. One disturbing fact about the technological changes is the constant replacement of human jobs by computers or robots. There are estimates that over half of the jobs now done by humans will be automated over the next 20 years. There are dozens of commentaries online making these predictions. In fact, many lawyers may lose their jobs to technology. See "Robots threaten these 8 jobs" from CNN Money.

Online genealogists are now being "supported" with semi-automatic record hints. Consequently, much of routine research needed in the past has been dramatically reduced by computerized programs that feed us endless lists of suggested sources from huge online databases. Some online websites, such as and already give many of us an extensive suggested pedigree the first time we sign in and provide some minimal information about ourselves and our families. I believe that it is entirely logical that this trend will continue. If may well be that our basic research as genealogists may consist of clicking on buttons and evaluating the options presented.

Before you start to expound on the complexity of making genealogical decisions, I would call your attention to the fact that many lawyers have already been replaced by semi-automated kiosks that provide the complete forms necessary to conduct your own divorce or bankruptcy. Genealogists tend to focus on the "difficult" relationships and the obscure research issues. In reality, most people today could likely discover four or even five generations of their ancestry by relying entirely on record hints from the very large online genealogical database companies.

If you are quick to point out that record hints are "unreliable," just think about the last time you incorporated one into your family tree. Oh yes, if your family came from a non-European background, you are yet so generously assisted, but what about the near future?

The main limitation today is still the lack of digitized records. I spent many happy hours last evening staring at a roll of microfilm. But at the same time, I was checking what I found against a significant number of online, digitized records. As it turned out, almost everything I found on the microfilm was already on digital records. The problem was that there was not yet enough information organized online to identify the records that had been digitized and once I entered enough information, the programs found the records immediately. If the programs can match records to our ancestors with any degree of accuracy, it is only a relatively small step to when the programs provide extensions to our genealogy automatically. Oh, wait. There are already programs such as that give us "Instant Discoveries."

Before you begin to rail about the inaccuracy of computerized genealogy, think about the inaccuracy of human-created genealogy. Couldn't computers do a better job than some of us humans? Think about it.


  1. I always enjoy your posts! You do a marvelous job of keeping many many people up to date and thinking in innovative ways. Thank you so much for the endless hours you spend on behalf of thousands. I wish more people would comment and say thank you! Bonnie Mattson

  2. Pay-for-access is keeping me away from a lot of digital offerings. Happily there is a huge amount of information available via Google Books and Internet Archive. Any "little leaves" in the pay sites that suggest connections between my tree and someone else's tree, usually, 9 times out of 10, winds up being a connection with my own information that I uploaded a long time ago and incorporated in the databases of others. (I can't source myself. But I am a little concerned that I'm the only person with my information. But, then again, we're a small family.) The 1 in 10 with new information usually winds up being 1) an exciting discovery, and 2) wrong.

    But I do imagine a wonderful future where all the good records (vital records, censuses, etc.) are digitally, and semi-autonomously organized for genealogical use. What is just a list of names on "paper" now are actually family after family. Crosswalk the census records and the vital records and the adoption/foster records and the probate records, and tie all that information together (based on names, dates, places)and it would be like 1,000,000 genealogists working on all genealogies, using the best (reasonably available records) at the same time.

    Rather than spending endless hours find each marriage, probate, appearance in a census on my own, I'd just like to connect to an "official" family tree (not the other fantasies that otherwise populate the online systems).

    Computer technology used right (records based) would be great. (I may even agree to pay a little if the information is going to be as good as it's going to be. Don't sell me, however, my own information back to me.)

    Computer technology used wrong (disseminating fantasy family trees) is a disaster.

    I think professional genealogists would still be required to track down the difficult cases.