No.047 - 38th NIHU Symposium, Worlds of History Opened Up by Computers: Considering the Digital Humanities

38th NIHU Symposium,
Worlds of History Opened Up by Computers: Considering the Digital Humanities



Kishigami Nobuhiro,
Executive Director
National Institutes for the Humanities


 Information and communication technologies (ICT) and artificial intelligence (AI) have lately been advancing at an astonishing pace. They have even begun to significantly affect scholarship in the humanities, fields of learning previously considered to have no connection with the development of cutting-edge science and technology.
 The humanities involve the study of human activities and products. In other words, they are disciplines focused on the culture of humankind, exploring what it means to be human and consider the features of human society. Scholars in the humanities—such fields as philosophy, ethics, history, literature, art studies, geography, cultural anthropology, and archaeology—now actively utilize ICT, AI, and computers in their research.


Kishigami Nobuhiro, Executive Director of the National Institutes for the Humanities (NIHU), presenting the aims of the symposium



 The six NIHU institutes today hold massive cultural resources and related information. In addition to organizing, examining, and digitizing their resources and making them available in databases, the institutes also utilize the databases for interdisciplinary collaborative research using the latest advancements in ICT and AI technology. One example isthe National Institute of Japanese Literature ’s initiative that involves research and development on an AI-based system capable of deciphering the cursive script used in Japanese historical documents. NIHU hosted a NIHU Symposium to introduce and consider both the potential and limits of the digital humanities—a discipline that takes advantage of computers and AI.
 Gotō Makoto of the National Museum of Japanese History reported on case studies in the field of history. He talked about endeavors made to convert the Engishiki (Procedures of the Engi Era)—a 50-volume collection of governmental regulations from early tenth-century Japan—into electronic format, as well as to analyze the computerized data, and AI-based efforts to convert historical Japanese documents into modern Japanese characters. Asahi Yoshiyuki of the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics presented examples of research that used AI to colorize and extract keywords of scenes, locations, items, time, and other factors concerning photos collected by Thomas Tarō Higa, a Nisei Hawaii resident, which in turn has paved the way for novel analyses. In response to Gotō and Asahi’s presentations, comments were provided by Kitamoto Asanobu of the Center for Open Data in the Humanities from the perspective of information science, Shimoyama Fumio of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation based on his experience of colorizing black-and-white videos, and Kusaka Kyūhachi from his experience as former Wikipedia administrator. These comments were followed by a general discussion among the panelists.


Scene from panel discussion



 The main points of the symposium were as follows: Advances in computer technology and AI have enabled scholars to process massive amounts of documents and images and to both classify and analyze information extracted from them or identify new information. While this has undoubtedly opened up new horizons in the humanities, the flip side is that despite the ability of AI to organize information and suggest possibilities for its analysis, humans are the only ones capable of interpreting the data in specific contexts and deciding how to use it. AI does not represent a replacement for human beings. Another point stressed was the increasingly important role of the humanities, such as ethics—which explores and provides guidelines on the uses of AI and other scientific technology in human society—in a time of rapid technological progress. In other words, while the use of computers and AI contribute to the advancement of the humanities the humanities (through knowledge) provide information that can guide people in their use of leading-edge technology in human society.
 Comments from members of the audience at the symposium included, for example, “the three commentators presented their perspectives as specialists in ways understandable, layman’s language, making it quite fascinating,” “Now I have high hopes for further success and development of humankind,” and “I got very excited to hear about developments in the humanities.” These comments confirm that the symposium succeeded in effectively drawing out public interest in the frontiers of the humanities.



38th NIHU Symposium, Worlds of History Opened Up by Computers: Considering the Digital Humanities
Date: 1:00 p.m.–4:30 p.m., Saturday, January 25, 2020
Venue: Hibiya Convention Hall, Hibiya Library & Museum


The symposium hall was filled with an appreciative audience.