The Future of the Past with AI

Posted on: 30 October 2023 by Jen Roberts (PhD student, Irish Studies, University of Liverpool) Professor Clare Downham (Irish Studies, University of Liverpool) in 2023 posts

A 15th century woodcut which shows the scene from Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis where the saint celebrates a mass on the body of a sea monster.
A 15th century woodcut which shows the scene from Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis where the saint celebrates a mass on the body of a sea monster.

Across the UK Higher Education, Humanities departments are facing a fresh wave of cuts. The value of disciplines such as history has been undermined by two decades of derision by government ministers.[1]

As we move into an era propelled by advancements in AI, a key question arises, what is the future of the past? Our answer is that the study of history is now more important than ever. It cultivates analytical skills which empower us to keep ahead of developments, and it also equips us with tools for grappling with the profound societal and ethical dilemmas that artificial intelligence brings.


Authenticity and truth are two potential victims in a world of AI-generated deep fakes and manipulations of data. Yet the core skills of historical research are to question, critically evaluate, and forensically analyse evidence. These are skills that AI has yet to acquire. It can accumulate and replicate information, but it is abysmal at evaluating or filtering for accuracy, as any history lecturer encountering an AI-generated student essay can attest. In a world of conspiracy theories and increasing mistrust of authority, humanities skills provide a safeguard against losing our grasp on reality.


AI also presents a new technological revolution. But of course, humans have had technological revolutions before, and we can use past experiences to evaluate and mitigate the future impact of AI on society, employment, and the distribution of power. Many articles have already been written about how AI can replace jobs and even intimate relationships, demonstrating a deep

anxiety about the intended, and unintended consequences of this technology. Drawing on past experiences of technological change, we can develop policies and regulations that promote responsible AI development, curbing exploitation, and mitigating the deepening of societal inequalities. History shows us how AI could be used as a tool for the good in being able to process vast amounts of information to generate new insights and combinations of data. How AI is used presents a range of ethical dilemmas. Past lessons are important to inform our future choices on how AI can be made fair, transparent, and accountable.


The very term ‘humanities’ means the study of qualities that distinguish people from machines. In the future, those skills are going to be increasingly important, and hard to replace. It is not uncommon in medieval narratives for the author to present themselves as navigating a small boat through a sea of knowledge. As we find ourselves amidst an expansive ocean of Artificial Intelligence, history can serve as both compass and rudder, aiding humanity in navigating the storms ahead and charting a steady course to the future. This is no time to be throwing the academic discipline of history overboard.



[1] Will Charles Clarke have his place in history? | UK news | The Guardian,

Is medieval history really bunk? Not if you’re a cabinet minister | History | The Guardian


The image used above is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or fewer.