Universiteit Leiden

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AI for humanities: ‘Especially as a humanities student, you have the tools to work with this’

While humanities once mainly involved books and archives, nowadays we can’t imagine life without AI. Next semester a new faculty-wide course will be introduced, taking you along with this development. University lecturer and course coordinator Yann Ryan tells us more about it.

‘So, the idea is to get a view of artificial intelligence from the perspective of humanities,’ Ryan explains enthusiastically. ‘The way we use AI raises all kinds of questions that we as humanities scholars are well placed to answer. For example, what’s the meaning of authorship in relation to ChatGPT? And what does knowledge mean, if a computer knows everything? As humanities scholars, we have the tools to think about that conceptually.’

Broad scope

The lectures in the series are taught by lecturers from across the whole faculty, ranging from linguists to historians and philosophers. This broad scope is an added value of the course, Ryan believes, because this way it doesn’t limit itself to one discipline or perspective. ‘Artificial intelligence has the potential to do lots of really cool things for humanities, so it’s not just about looking critically at it. We also want to showcase all the interesting things that scholars are doing with it.’

Think of research into translation software, but also applications that make historical texts easier to search. Ryan: ‘Before, you could maybe read five handwritten manuscripts a day, but with new software it’s possible to recognise patterns in texts. It enables you to work much faster, not only on texts, but also in art. We’ll have a lecture on that in the course. I don’t know much about art history myself, so I’m really looking forward to learning from my colleagues about it.’

Understanding the framework of research

'Students afraid of being inundated with technical specifications and coding tasks can be reassured: ‘The course won’t be hands on in terms of coding, so there’s no coding experience needed. I hope to teach students what the framework of this kind of research looks like, so they’ll know what’s out there and how they can perform their own research.’

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