Interactive global histories

In our increasingly complex world, we are witnessing an exponential growth in the treasure trove of human experience. To access and utilise the entirety of data and information on the collective heritage of humanity, traditional disciplinary knowledge needs to be directed toward a formal science of heritage.

This transdisciplinary science will focus on how historical information on intercontinental trade, diplomacy, conflicts and other interactions among cities, nations and continents—now encoded in complex interactions of written, pictorial, sculptural, architectural and digital records, as well as oral memories, practices and performed rituals—can be organised and processed with the assistance of machine learning algorithms.

Unlocking historical data with artificial intelligence

Engineering historical memory is a methodology for the organisation of historical information in the machine learning age that I am developing in collaboration with Assoc Prof Cheong Siew Ann of NTU’s School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, and Assoc Prof Erik Cambria and Asst Prof Joty Shafiq Rayhan of NTU’s School of Computer Science and Engineering.

Initially based on studies of chronicles and diaries from Venice, Italy (covering the years 1205-1433), and world maps (e.g. the Fra Mauro map, generated around 1450 in Venice), we recently included other coeval historiographical traditions, including Chinese, Greek, Russian, Malay and Arab sources, in the project.

In particular, we are applying computational techniques such as pattern recognition, data mining, machine learning algorithms derived from other disciplines, knowledge aggregators, as well as interactive and visualisation solutions.

The research project is now linked to the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Bookish and Experimental Research (LIBER), which has been recently established in the library of the School of Art, Design and Media. The aim is to provide data-driven agent-based modelling and simulations for the study of the Afro-Eurasian communication networks.

Learning from the great world explorers

Our project aims to set the stage for an international laboratory that can address a significant gap in integrating and sharing historical data and knowledge.

By extracting information from primary narrative sources, such as Venetian and Malay chronicles, world maps—for instance, the 1457 Genoese world map and Fra Mauro’s mappa mundi—and travel accounts from explorers like Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Zhang He, we are able to generate bottom-up mathematical models for trade, conflict and diplomacy.

The data is then mapped to an electronic database and used in analytical environments to build linkages between parsed texts and recognised entities from other heterogeneous sources (e.g. Wikipedia and Open Street Map) and search engines (e.g. Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic).

The research team is now developing a web-based platform that allows “reading” of the 1457 Genoese world map and the Fra Mauro map—originally in Latin and Vernacular Venetian—in English, Mandarin and several other languages (Figure 1). This visualisation is empowered through real-time connection to Wikipedia, providing access to further primary and secondary literature sources.

Figure 1: Connecting historical information from primary sources (e.g. historical maps) with geographic coordinates and scholarly secondary literature accessible via web search engines and digital libraries (e.g. JSTOR and Google Scholar). In this example, selecting the location of Cathay (the name by which North China was known in medieval Europe) on the Fra Mauro world map links to relevant information on Wikipedia.

Author: Andrea Nanetti
Assoc Prof Andrea Nanetti is Associate Chair (Research) in NTU’s School of Art, Design and Media. A pioneer in digital humanities focussing on the conservation of human experiences and heritage in Afro-Eurasia’s pre-modern history, Assoc Prof Nanetti also holds a courtesy appointment in NTU’s School of Humanities.
More details of the research presented here can be found in “Revisiting the world of Fra Mauro’s map and the Morosini Codex in an artificial intelligence perspective”, Asian Review of World Histories, 4, no. 1 (2016), ISSN 2287-9811;” Computational History: From Big Data to Big Simulations”, ch. 18 in Big Data in Computational Social Science and Humanities (2018), Springer International Publishing AG, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-95465-3_18; and “Overcoming linguistic and cultural obstacles in the transcultural (re)-reading of primary sources and secondary literature for Afro-Eurasian pre-modern history (1205-1533)”, Order/Disorder in Asia: Historical Perspectives (2019), The Asiatic Society, Kolkata, India (submitted for publication).
The article appeared first in NTU’s research & innovation magazine Pushing Frontiers (issue #15, June 2019). 

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