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Artificial Intelligence and Genealogy

Enhancing your family history is big news in the genealogy community at the moment. Whether it’s bringing your ancestors’ photos to life with the “Deep Nostalgia” tool by My Heritage, photo restoration or ghost writing programmes which let you create a written family history book without ever typing a word on the keyboard, technology is all around us. One of the more “out there” offerings is from EmulateMe, which uses your FamilySearch profile and account to let you interview your long dead relatives and talk to their avatars. A bit gimmicky. We all know that AI can make mistakes, and the real risk is that novices in family history accept everything the AI tells them as 100% true, and forget to do the basics of researching, getting records, following families from generation to generation. If you’re not doing the basic research, you have no idea whether what the AI is telling you is true or not.

Photo Restoration and Genealogy

One area which technology can really help with is restoring and sharpening up old photos. I recently shared this photograph of my great great grandmother Mary Ann McKenzie, aged around 4, with her parents Thomas McKenzie and Margaret Clark. This photo was taken in the late 1870s and 150 years later is showing its age a bit.

Getting family photos taken at the time was very fashionable, and although this family were not in any way wealthy, having a portrait done at the local photographer was clearly important to them. This is the only photograph I have of the family group, as Thomas died in 1883 and the couple only ever had one child.

The Results

The results – well personally, I feel they were mixed.

The first thing the experts did was to sharpen the image for me, which did bring the faces into focus and reveal details which aren’t as obvious on the original. It’s not perfect though, and there is definitely something going on with Mary Ann’s left hand. The second thing they did was to colourise the photo and this is where I have much stronger reservations. The hair and skin colours are probably correct knowing what I do about my relatives on that stem of my tree. As for the colours of the clothing, well that’s complete guesswork and I’m unconvinced by the blue and gold combo on Margaret’s dress.

AI and technology does offer huge possibilities for genealogy but should be treated with caution. It’s no substitute for traditional research but can complement it in many ways. The more gimmicky aspects of the trend such as being able to “talk” to your ancestors, colour clothing or picture yourself as a viking warrior are fun, but not to be taken in any way seriously.


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