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RootsTech 2024 Focuses on AI for Research and Storytelling - Treasure Chest of Memories

Title Image generated with AI with lady on laptop and ghost of her sailor ancestor with the title of AI for Research and Storytelling

It’s clear that a focus—if not the focus—of RootsTech 2024 is using AI for research and storytelling.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is inescapable, whether or not we’re ready. As FamilySearch CEO, Steve Rockwood, said in his opening remarks, industry leaders planned to showcase “responsible uses of generative AI to create goodness and connection” at the conference.

That’s a bold statement.

I have some qualms about what I like to call artificial storytelling. Will it stifle creativity? Will AI editors make all our writing sound the same? Here in the US, most musical hits come from a small group of composers. We’re losing the depth and diversity of musical creativity. I would hate to see that happen with personal and family stories.

Advice from Steve Little about Using AI for Research and Storytelling

To explore the topic further, I attended Steve Little’s “Five Tools for your AI Genealogy Toolbox: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.”

Steve is the AI Program Director of the National Genealogical Society and the 600-seat room was packed at 8:00 a.m.—the opening hour of RootsTech 2024.

AI for time-consuming data analysis

Research isn’t just collecting facts. It’s analyzing information and drawing conclusions.

Steve Little illustrated using AI and chatbots to look for ancestors who lived in a specific place and time period, or to extract facts from records.

The Limits of AI for research and storytelling

Once he had us all geeked up about harnessing this power, Steve Little segued into the limits of using AI. Some, of course, are technical, but others are ethical.

Historians are limited by the rigors of peer-reviewed scholarship. We can have AI give us great hints, but we humans makesure we’re accurately presenting the past. So, AI may not solve issues of two men by the same name living in the same place for us. We have to analyze the analysis.

Related Reading:  How Legal Context Prevents Misunderstood Family Stories:  An Interview with Judy Russell and Writing Ancestor Stories without Judgment 

Little also stressed that we learn by doing, not by reading. He estimates a newbie needs about 20 hours of working with AI to have enough knowledge to be successful with it.

My takeaway from this session is that we can be both mistrustful and experimental. Perhaps that’s even the best, most ethical way to proceed.

It’s about balance. Excessive trust in algorithms can lead to “accepting information without verification.” Too much mistrust can cause us to miss out on an effective tool.

Impact of AI on Family Storytelling and the Writing Genres in General

Luckily, I was speaking in the same room and was setting up as he answered attendees’ questions. One man asked him what would happen to writers and other creatives. The reply was a mixed bag. Steve Little thinks AI will encourage people who have never thought of themselves as writers to write stories. However, a lot of them will be really bad until people realize the good and ethical uses of AI versus getting a lot of words on a page.

Storytelling Apps

One of the “players” in the genealogy industry is Storied. Their platform brings together genealogical facts, images, as well as family, community, and church contacts to help people tell their stories. Although stories can be written from scratch, they also have an “AI helper.”

I was reassured, however, when Storied CEO Kendall Hulet introduced the text generated as “text to edit.” They envisioned this functionality to eliminate the intimidation of a blank page.

Aside: Kendall confirmed this in the elevator at the hotel. That’s the beauty of attending RootsTech in person. You have tremendous access to vendors!

Where will AI take Genealogists and Writers next?

James Tanner has immersed himself in AI and led several AI sessions at RootsTech2024. His handout for “Using AI Tools to Expand Your Research Universe, Part 1” is 40 pages.

He started his talk by explaining that AI is growing so quickly that the information that we heard on Thursday would likely be obsolete by Friday.

It’s a learning curve that is ever-changing.

IA Tools Impact the Availability of Online Records.

Record availability limits the facts and context that we integrate into our personal and family stories.

AI can “read” and “index” records, including old, handwritten record sets. For instance, Ancestry announced that they had added 18.6 billion records in 2024. To put that in context, it took Ancestry from 1977 to 2023 for Ancestry to amass 41 billion records. They added almost a third more records in one year.

AI is changing the way we search for records.

AI goes way beyond search engine’s capabilities.

On February 29, FamilySearch announced Family Search Labs and full text searches for two selected groups of unindexed records.

Leveraging the power of AI search technology, this experimental FamilySearch assistant is meant to simplify your genealogical journey, allowing you to conduct natural language searches to find what you need among all the resources available on FamilySearch.org. The tool will allow you to type in questions about your ancestors, about available records, or other genealogy-related tasks, such as how to decipher old handwriting. It even has the convenience of follow-up questioning, similar to a Chat GPT interaction.

After watching a couple of minutes of their intro video, I tried it out and Viola! I found a record of my elusive ancestor John Wilkinson and his wife Nancy deeding land to their sons.

Your Turn

Have you tried out AI for research and storytelling? Tell us about your experience.

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