How digital technology helps solve mysteries in the humanities | Elisa Barney | TEDxBoise

How digital technology helps solve mysteries in the humanities | Elisa Barney | TEDxBoise


Translator: Salvador Pineda Guevara
Reviewer: Vanessa Soneghet Hi, I’m Elisa.
I’m an electrical engineer. Most people when they first meet me
are very surprised to learn that. I’m not what they think about
when they think about what an engineer is. When they think about an engineer they think of somebody with dark-rimmed
glasses and a pocket protector. Have you heard the joke: What’s the difference between
an introvert and extrovert engineer? An extrovert looks
at your shoes not his own. (Laughter) When I was an undergraduate
at RPI in 1980s, I came across this thing
called “the jargon file” developed by computer science students
at MIT and Stanford. It’s a bunch of tongue-in-cheek
definitions of computing terms. One of the ones I love from there
is computer geek; it is a noun: One who eats computer bugs for a living. (Laugher) One who fulfills all the dreariest
negative stereotypes of a hacker. An asocial, malodorous,
pasty-faced, monomaniac with all the personality
of a cheese grater. (Laugher) We know how to laugh at ourselves,
and while all stereotypes have some truth, I’m here today to show you
another side of engineering. When people think what engineers do,
electrical engineers particularly, they think of building circuits, radios,
maybe your power grids. If we’re in Boise, maybe they also
think about computer memory or printers. We do quite a bit more than that. Some people know that engineers
do a lot of humanitarian development. We bring power and lighting
to remote villages around the world. We develop tools
for people with special needs. We write cell phone apps that can bring a basic level
of healthcare to remote villages. The tag line for the electrical
engineering professional society, IEEE, is “Advancing Technology for Humanity.” In addition to doing projects
that are humanitarian, we actually do projects
directly for the humanities, like history, literature, art, philosophy. You can think of these as mysteries, where we’re using engineering as a tool
to help unravel these mysteries. There’s a field called digital humanities, which is applying the computational
tools to the humanities. A lot of these projects start
by digitising a book, a piece of artwork. But what’s more important
is the analysis that follows and the understanding that can enable. I’ve been able to work on a lot
of interesting projects in my career. And I’m going to tell you
about three of them to give you a feeling for how engineering
can affect these humanity projects. We’re going to take
a little time machine trip. Are you ready? Ready. We’re going to go back
about a century to the first world war, which is widely considered to be
the first industrialised war in history. Technology led to a lot of advancements
that supported soldiers on the front line. It was used by civilians at home
in support of those soldiers. Technology also played a large role in the development
of the military postal service. During my sabbatical
at the Technical University in Dortmund, I worked with a historian who studies
World War I through the postal trail. During World War I,
there were 28 billion mail pieces shipped between the military front line
and the home front and vice versa. On any given day, 18 million pieces
of mail were shipped. Of those, there were parcels, letters
and 25 percent of them were postcards. This historian is working to study
World War I through those postcards. Now, individually, a postcard
doesn’t say very much. It’s very small. There’s only a small space
on which you can write. You can think of these postcards as the tweets, the instant
messages of World War I. (Laughter) They’re examples
of everyday communication, and they’re really rich in historical,
cultural and linguistic information. And we want to unravel
these mysteries and study these. But because there were so many, doing
everything manually is not practical. So that’s where we come in, bringing in automated tools
to help in this understanding. We cannot do automatic transcription,
but we can still help. Here’s an example of a postcard, and as you can see, one of the problems
we have with the postcards is that the ink is very faded
and the paper is very yellowed. This makes it very difficult for people
to read and transcribe what is written. I’ve developed a tool
to increase the contrast, making it much easier
for that transcription to take place. We want to know what was written
on it as well as to whom it was sent. The vertical line, if I can
automatically identify that, can help separate
those pieces of information to target where we are reading. The horizontal lines
tell you where the address is. I can automatically identify
where those lines are, and I can even remove it
to make reading those addresses easier. The postage stamps are always of interest,
but they’ve all been cancelled. I can remove the cancellation mark. But really, it’s the cancellation mark
that contains all of the information. It says from where it was sent
and often the date on which it was sent, so I can make the stamp disappear,
so now you can read the cancellation mark. Here’s another example just because
they’re so pretty to look at. We have the stamps,
and we have these cancellation marks. and they’re always intertwined
with that text we really want to read. We can make the text disappear
to study those post marks and those stamps and we can make those stamps disappear, and now we can read
that text a lot easier. With all this analysis, we can find out a lot more
about the people, their history and their humanity. The next stop on our trip
is going back several hundred years, shortly after the invention
of the printing press. With the printing press,
the old styled ones, lead type was inked
and pressed to the paper to form these paper documents. These lead pieces contain
a lot of information. They tell the history of printing. They tell the artistry
of the design of the type. And they tell the history of the artisans,
how they were influenced by other artisans as time evolved and they
interacted with each other. We want to study that lead type, but most of those lead type
pieces were either lost or melted down to form something else. So therefore, how can we study them
if they’re no longer with us? The answer is in those pages of text, which still remain in libraries
and museums around the world. With that we can reconstruct
those lead type pieces and then use that for further study. Already, we have found that the type
is not as uniform as previously thought. Take this document, for instance. And here are 11 D’s from that document. The serifs, or those flags at the top,
occur at many different angles. The serifs at the bottom
extend out different amounts. We no longer think that the artisans
would buy type in a complete set, maybe their first startup
but not afterwards. When pieces were lost,
they would then just order replacements when the artisans came to town. “I’ll take two D’s, five A’s
and 10 E’s please.” What else? Well, on your home PC,
the typical word processing program, you have access to 100 different fonts
with which you can create documents which can fit your mood in whatever
you’re trying to accomplish. If you spend a little bit more money,
you can go on the internet, and you can easily, inexpensively
buy a thousand more fonts to add to your creativity. We can take these documents,
and by inspecting those letters, we can extract the shapes
of those characters, put them into computerised form
and use them as a font to print documents looking like something
from several centuries ago. Now, why might you want to do this? Take this document as an example. How many of you read Middle French? Okay, I see one hand. (Laughter) We can transcribe what was written there; we can correct for the typography
conventions of that ancient time; we can translate it to modern French. How many of you can read modern French? Okay, a few more hands are showing up. We can translate it to English. All the hands should go up now. (Laughter) But now you’re reading something
that looks like it was printed yesterday. If I use this old font
and print it on old paper, you now have the feeling
of reading an old document without investing years
in studying Middle French. This is the same reason why
if you go to a history museum, you see the docents dressed in a costume. It brings more of your senses
into the experience and makes it a richer experience for you. The next stop on our journey
with our magic time machine is not back a couple hundred years,
but we’re now going to go back 2000 years to the Middle East,
to the area near Qumran and the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Starting in 1947 when the first
Dead Sea Scrolls were found, they have made a marvel for people
as they’ve wondered: What do they say? And why were they there?
And what can we learn from them? Over the course of a decade, in 11 caves,
about a thousand scrolls were found. Due to poor handling
and the effects of time, we now have about 10,000
fragments we need to interpret. Technology is helping this considerably. For instance, in January 2018, they were able to take
several of the pieces and put them together
like a jigsaw puzzle. And then from there they discovered
that the name of a festival that the people 2000 years ago used
to describe the changing of the seasons was called “tekufah,”
which means cycle in Hebrew. In May 2018, pieces of fragment that looked like
they were blank under visible light, they used an imaging system
developed at NASA, and they were able to see that with infrared light
there was actually text on them. And when they put them together,
they discovered that Psalm 147, Verse 1 that was used 2000 years ago by these
people was shorter than what we use now. They also discovered that they do indeed
have a third copy of the Temple Scroll, describing the ideal ceremonies
to be used in the ideal temple, and they found that they have
a third example of a document written in Paleo-Hebrew which will add
greatly to linguistic studies. 80 percent of these documents
are written on leather or parchment, 20 percent of them are on papyrus, but one scroll, Scroll 3Q15
discovered in 1952, is made of copper. It contains a treasure map. They think it’s dated from 25 to 100 AD, and they still
have not found the treasure. I’ve started working with a collector who has another copy
of a scroll made of copper reportedly from Qumran. This scroll was legally obtained. It was in the United States
before 1970 UNESCO convention on methods to prohibit
the illegal and illicit import, export and transfer
of ownership of cultural property. It’s very wrinkled
because over the course of time, it’s been rolled
and unrolled several times. And it’s now very difficult
to tell what is text because it’s not ink on paper,
it was impressions made into it. So it’s hard to tell what is text
and what is wrinkle. Think of the aluminium foil
on your leftover BBQ chicken. (Laughter) To make matters worse, the previous owner
had used tape to affix it to a frame, which makes it even harder to read. We’ve done some high resolution
imaging on this scroll, including doing
a three-dimensional model of it. So now on the computer, I can look at this
in three dimensions mathemathically. And I can take the three-dimensional map,
and I can virtually flatten it, and with that, with a little bit of
additional imaging processing techniques, we’re starting to see things
which we think are the characters. Now we need to figure out what it says. This mystery is not complete;
there’s still a lot of work to be done. We still want to know: How old is it?
Where is it from? What does it say? For whom was the message intended? And most importantly,
what is its historical significance? Because there’s only one other examplar
of a copper scroll in existence, understanding the cultural
and historical context of that one will be greatly expanded if we can
uncover the secrets of this scroll. This is not complete. I told you we have mysteries,
and this mystery is still in progress. Stay tuned. Computers and electrical engineering
can be applied to the humanities: book, scrolls, postcards, artwork. They enable you to travel through time. They let you look at historical
artifacts in distant places. You can see what people
were doing and ask why. This is not science fiction or fantasy,
this is science fact. And the fantasy is in the questions
you can imagine to ask, and the answers to the questions
we might find out. Electrical engineering
and computer science make tools that can make an impact
on the humanities. There are still lots
of unanswered questions. I invite you to think about
those unanswered questions and what other projects
can electrical engineering and computer science be applied to to help unlock these mysteries. They’re all around us. Thank you. (Applause)

Danny Hutson

12 thoughts on “How digital technology helps solve mysteries in the humanities | Elisa Barney | TEDxBoise

  1. Very interesting talk about a fascinating topic – great connections between the humanities and the sciences and engineering!

  2. Great Job Elisa, interesting topics. Everyone loves a mystery and your talents can help unlock a message from thousands of years ago. Can't wait to find out what the message is?

  3. I really liked how she connected science to history and how the tools we use today have eased our life into studying a matter or just our life in general.

    Though the tools are used today are considerably advanced but yet there is a room for improvement which make it interesting.

    Electrical and computer engineers are the bride to a fascinating future.

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