A project of CHNM Labs.
The enormous scale and linked nature of the Web—an unprecedented development—makes it possible for the Web to be “right” in the aggregate while sometimes very wrong on specific pages. This is actually a pragmatic understanding of the Web that underlies much recent work by computer scientists (including those at Google) who are trying to forge a trustworthy resource for information out of the immense chaos of billions of heterogeneous electronic documents. Does the same hold true for history? Is the average of all historical Web pages “meaningful” and accurate? To answer this question, we developed an automated historical fact finder called “H-Bot” beginning in spring 2004.
Right now H-Bot can only answer questions for which the responses are dates or simple definitions of the sort you would find in the glossary of a history textbook. For example, H-Bot is fairly good at responding to queries such as “What was the gold standard?”, “Who was Lao-Tse?”, “When did Charles Lindbergh fly to Paris?”, and “When was Nelson Mandela born?” The software can also answer, with a lower degree of success, more difficult “who” questions such as “Who discovered nitrogen?” It cannot currently answer questions that begin with “how” or “where,” or (unsurprisingly) the most interpretive of all historical queries, “why.”