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Using terms like augmented reality, artificial intelligence, the cloud, blockchain, social media and 5G, the RootsTech 2023 Innovation and Tech Forum highlighted some of the latest innovations, technology and platforms available in the world of family history.
The services and products go beyond the screen to connect families and friends to each other in the present and into the past — fitting into this year’s conference theme of “Uniting.”
Moderated by Dr. Nick Barratt, an author, broadcaster and historian best known for his work on BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”, the event on March 2 allowed representatives from nine companies to take to the main stage and have a few minutes to highlight their latest offerings.
The forum’s featured speaker was Vlada Bortnik, co-founder and CEO of Marco Polo — a popular video messenger app which allows users to have face-to-face connections with their family members and friends on their own schedule.
Bortnik said in founding the company, she and her husband asked themselves, “What do we want for our kids?” The answer was more happiness. In her research on happiness, she found an 80-year Harvard study that concluded, “relationships are the only things that matter in life,” Bortnik said. Close relationships in particular made for happier and healthier people.
The company’s purpose was born from that idea: to help people feel close. When sending a “polo” or video to someone else, the app’s users have privacy, no ads, no algorithms, likes or followers.
“Investing in your relationships is really important,” Bortnik said. “It’s important to you and to happiness. Take the time to invest. Take the time to prioritize using technologies that you trust.”
Andy Gold from FamilySearch talked about how his team has worked hard to build technology to bring families closer together and be united.
He explained Computer-Generated Trees (CGT) — “They’re family trees, built in specific locales around the world for richly indexed historical records.”
FamilySearch processes these in the cloud, using machine learning, AI tools and clustering. Then they layer audits on top of that to make sure the trees are accurate.
“CGTs build the necessary scaffolding to house all the data necessary in tree form,” Gold said.
Complex connections are done in a matter of hours rather than thousands of hours of manual labor.
“This quickly brings family structures into focus for people that are trying to discover their families, and these are from entire populations of people, they come from millions of different types of records,” he said.
Gold showed images of birth, marriage and death records from several countries, and explained that the technology needed to be one system — like a pipeline — to process all that complex information, while following principles of the genealogical proof standard.
FamilySearch now has five new computer-generated collections online at familysearch.org/search/cgt — in Tasmania, Australia; Santa Catarina, Brazil; Pangasinan, Philippines; Nuevo Leon, Mexico; and Abruzzo, Italy.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to build software that emulates expert thinking at scale to assist both experts and non-experts discover relationships more efficiently,” Gold said.
Finn Larson and Cody Mortensen presented from Storied, a company that helps people start a tree from scratch or upload their family tree from another site.
They showed how to write stories on the site, by inputting a few details and then using AI to generate a draft.
“From there I can edit anything, delete anything, add my own voice and really make it my own. Sometimes staring at a blank page can be intimidating. But ‘story assist’ is here to help you get the ball rolling,” said Mortensen.
Larson said the relationship tab of the website allows people to add any relationships to their tree, even enemies, teammates, friends or pets.
“Think about the characters in the stories in your lives. When we built a story-oriented family history service from the ground up, we knew we needed to support many types of relationships,” Larson said.
He said collaborative storytelling and relationships outside of the family tree will change the way that family history is both consumed and conducted.
Bank of Memories
Iryna Savytska, the CEO of Bank of Memories, a pay service allowing people to keep their private family network on blockchain, said data is lost every day while data keeps growing.
Between all the different apps and social media platforms, “there is no single place, for example, [where] my child can enter in 10 years from now and see something about my life,” Savytska said, while wearing a Ukrainian dress during her presentation to show how her country and family traditions are important to her.
“When you analyze where data is stored, you understand it’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” she said. Therefore decentralization and blockchain technology can give power over data back to people in a secure and reliable way.
By uploading an existing family tree to blockchain, she said, people can access that tree many years into the future.
KinSame is a startup company that uses computer vision technology to identify family relationships or kinships from images.
Looking at two photos, the software uses algorithms and machine learning to match and compare facial features, thus establishing familial connections — and the degree of kinship.
The software can also identify people in family portraits and older pictures and see who is who in the picture. Using meta data from genealogy companies, KinSame identifies who the people are and fills in age and gender.
“We can structure the database and galleries in a way that a person who’s previously unidentified will find their way to the family,” said CEO Warren Stein.
Stas Nikolskiy with GENXT spoke about how his company uses a confidential computing network to search across databases without genetic data disclosure.
The service allows companies to find relatives for their customers in each other’s databases without data disclosure.
“There are only five leading databases of which exceed 1 million individuals,” he said, “Databases of [an] average company range from 1,000 to 100,000 individuals, which is not enough for a reasonable number of matches.”
He said personal genomics companies can not access genetic data of others, but his company can communicate matches to its customers in their preferred format.
Oscar Johnson from Ericsson demonstrated the use of augmented reality and virtual reality in storytelling.
“5G is the combinatorial effect to bring immersive content off the computer, out of the building, out of your home, off your Wi Fi network, and deliver that immersive content anywhere,” Johnson said.
Ericsson’s new platform is called, “Every Place Has a Story,” or EPHAS. Johnson showed a video of how the platform used maps, graphics, audio and visual features with augmented reality to tell the story of a battle in the former Soviet Union.
“When the limitations of technology disappear, the only thing that remains is your imagination,” Johnson said.
Benjamin Günther, the CEO of Synium Software, demonstrated the company’s MacFamilyTree app, which can be purchased for Macs, iPhones and iPads.
“It has always been our core belief that family history is so much more than just a list of names,” Günther said. He said their app allows an immersive, engaging and innovative way to discover family history.
It has built-in FamilySearch integration, and the user can scan for relatives or look for photos of families or people and then with one click, download the information.
The app allows people to colorize black and white photos or enhance the quality of legibility on older documents with machine learning and artificial intelligence. Users also can sync with different devices, create visual family trees, family books, charts and visuals.
The company MyHeritage has had a lot of attention recently as people share the results of its “AI Time Machine” on social media. The senior vice president of product, Maya Lerner, showed on the screen a picture of herself depicted as a woman in many different historical periods.
The technology uses the photos of one person to construct a model of that person in a variety of poses. Then, using a series of predefined historical themes, it synthesizes the model with motifs from the themes to create images from the past — casting that person as a historical figure.
As the AI Time Machine has gone viral on social media, Lerner said it has drawn new audiences into genealogy.
“People are saying that it shows them how much they resemble their ancestors,” she said. “All of a sudden they see themselves in these historical things, and they feel like they look very much alike. This got them to pay tribute to their ancestors and post on social media all these beautiful stories about them.”
Lerner said the company noticed that the AI images actually also empowered women to feel good about themselves. “Who knew the past could make you feel so good about the present?” she said.
More about RootsTech 2023
RootsTech is an annual family history and technology conference sponsored by FamilySearch, which is a nonprofit genealogical organization operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
RootsTech 2023 kicked off on March 2 and goes through March 4 in Salt Lake City. After two consecutive years of being held completely online, this year’s conference has events both in-person and online.
The first day’s events also included the 2023 Temple and Family History Leadership Instruction, and a keynote address from singer Jordin Sparks.