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Decoding Digital Humanities

Illustration created using Dall-E 2

The Center for Digital Humanities (CDH) was launched in 2021 to help scholars combine the powers of the human brain with the powers of compu­tation, opening up possible new areas of research, says director Tom Lippincott.

“There’s a whole space to explore of what humans can do that comput­ers can’t, and vice versa, and how they complement each other,” Lippincott says. Humans have one set of mech­anisms for insights and reasoning and inference, and computers have another. What happens, he asks, when you combine those perspectives and direct them toward questions research­ers have never imagined pursuing?

The field of digital humanities is broad and vague, says Lippincott, with different people often understand­ing it differently. For some, it means accessing, synthesizing, and analyz­ing data relevant to humanities disci­plines. For some, digital humanities is about public humanities, or making archives widely accessible—often allow­ing communities to learn about them­selves in ways not otherwise possible.

The CDH’s mission is more focused, Lippincott explains. He and four post­doctoral fellows are working with humanities faculty to understand the various ways that researchers would be interested in using computational assistance to reveal previously unde­tected relationships among enormous sets of data points. Meanwhile, they are creating an overarching system— architecture, in the lingo—that schol­ars in fields ranging from art history to classics to English will be able to use to explore their data in new ways.

Learning the ropes

Since the lean center won’t have the capacity to craft customized systems for each interested researcher, Lippincott plans instead to guide researchers to arrange their data into an outlined for­mat—a kind of sophisticated spread­sheet—that the overarching system will be able to read. Such informa­tion will help train and use tailored machine-learning models, and eventu­ally allow for cross-disciplinary insights; for example, identifying authors who also appear in historical records through political or economic activities.

A course, the first iteration of which the CDH staff taught in spring 2023, will help graduate and under­graduate students become famil­iar with the data-organizing princi­ples that lend themselves to the CDH system—skills they can then use throughout their research careers.

“This course is the primary entry point for collaboration with the CDH, while also giving a broad overview of computational methods that might generally prove useful for humanis­tic scholarship,” Lippincott says. “I’m hopeful that we’re going to be able to create a small, embedded generation of people who are able to engage with us directly, and then that will grow.”

Where AI Meets History

Recent advances in artificial intel­ligence have underscored the oppor­tunity for the kind of work Lippincott has always wanted the CDH to tackle: identifying what distinguishes a human mind from a computer, where the limitations of each lie, and what can be accomplished by mining the untapped synergies between them.

That intersection is prime terri­tory for deep interdisciplinary explo­ration, for which Hopkins is especially well suited, Lippincott says. He sees enormous potential for explicitly bridg­ing the fields through shared gradu­ate students and other initiatives.