New technology helps decipher historic hand-written documents at national archive

Source: 1News

Putting pen to paper is fast becoming a lost art, with once carefully-crafted calligraphy being replaced by typed text.

And that change means some of New Zealand's oldest hand-written documents, stored at the national archive, are too hard for most people to read. 

At Archives New Zealand, hours upon hours are spent taking photos and jotting down notes - all to uncover little pieces of family history.

And now, thanks to a new piece of technology, some age-old stories are now a lot easier to decipher.

"The software's called Transkribus. It's an artificial intelligence or, more precisely, machine learning technology," Chief archivist Richard Foy explained.

It works by first taking a photo of the book, which is then sent to the computer. From there, the machine digitally transcribes the words in a matter of seconds and it's stored online for all to access.

While some records aren't too hard to decipher, others aren't quite so straightforward, such as an old judge's notebook which is almost impossible to read.

"You kind of have to have done some research about the case to kind of get a sense of what the judge is actually writing," archivist Vivienne Cuff said.

Mr Foy added: "You know, I'm middle-aged but even I struggle to read some of that 19th century cursive writing."

But for the computer to analyse the text, someone must first create a digital model by finding common shapes and patterns in the handwriting before entering them into the software.

In the future, the technology could be used to decipher such things as Te Reo.

"Remember, it's not actually reading that cursive writing. It's really just doing pattern recognition. But it's doing that in an ability and at a speed that humans couldn't possibly do," Mr Foy said.