From prams to Parliament – what was a machine? Help us find out

Written by Mia RidgeDecember 4, 2020Comments: 0

Help us teach computers to understand ‘machines’ from the perspective of people living through the Industrial Revolution.

Photo of 19th century pram shaped like a half-circle on delicate wheels
Pram, with black upholstery, 19th century, probably English. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

From our 21st century perspective, we probably don’t think of scales as a ‘weighing machine’, or think of prams as machines at all – but the fact that they were called a ‘machine’ in 19th century texts could tell us something about what ‘machines’ were in the nineteenth century imagination.

To help us find out, we’ve launched two new crowdsourcing tasks on the Zooniverse platform.

Our ‘describe’ and ‘classify’ tasks are aimed very specifically at gathering examples of what people meant by ‘machine’ at the time.

Most crowdsourcing projects ask people to ‘type what they see’, transcribing text or classifying images shown on the screen. Our new tasks ask people to look closely at the content of an article to assign meaning to the ‘machine’ mentioned. They rely on people’s skill at reading closely to help develop computational language models to analyse data at scale.

The Living with Machines project is at the forefront of collaboration between libraries and data scientists. These new tasks, based on our human ability to understand the meaning of words in context and the ability of computers to work at scale, are a great example of the benefits of collaboration.

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