How Digital Technology Helps Solve Mysteries in the Humanities

Electrical engineer Elisa Barney gives a TEDx talk about the ways modern image processing techniques are being used to help understand our past
03 September 2019
Elisa Barney TEDx
Credit: YouTube

SPIE Senior Member Elisa Barney is an electrical engineer at Boise State University who is interested in the ways digital technology has can help us solve mysteries in the humanities. In her TEDx Boise talk, she shows images of WWI postcards and explains how image-processing algorithms are used to study the cancellation marks on the postage stamps, isolate the handwriting, and learn more about the life of soldiers during the war. On a given day, she says, approximately 4.5 million postcards were sent and received during the war. "You can think of these postcards as the tweets...of World War I."

She also explains how reconstruction algorithms are used to analyze the print in very old books, then digitally reconstruct the original lead printing blocks, and then create digital "antique" fonts that look just like the fonts from centuries ago, with all of the irregularities that make a block-printed book look authentically old. Those digital fonts can then optically recognize scanned antique text and run it through translation programs to quickly and digitally translate a book from, for example, middle French to modern English.

“This is not science fiction or fantasy,” she says. “This is science fact. The fantasy is in the questions you can imagine to ask, and the answers to the questions we might find.”

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