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Google is using AI to help The New York Times digitize 5 million historic photos

The New York Times doesn’t keep bodies in its “morgue” — it keeps pictures. In a basement under its Times Square offices, stuffed into cabinets and drawers, the Times stores between 5 million and 7 million images, along with information about when they were published and why. Now, the paper is working with Google to digitize its huge collection.

The morgue (as the basement storage area is known) contains pictures going back to the 19th century, many of which exist nowhere else in the world. “[It’s] a treasure trove of perishable documents,” says NYT’s chief technology officer Nick Rockwell. “A priceless chronicle of not just The Times’s history, but of nearly more than a century of global events that have shaped our modern world.”

That’s why the company has hired Google, which will use its machine vision smarts to not only scan the hand- and type-written notes attached to each image, but categorize the semantic information they contain (linking data like locations and dates). Google says the Times will also be able to use its object recognition tools to extract even more information from the photos, making them easier to catalog and resurface for future use.

Okay, so, this is basically just news of Google landing a well-known client for its digitizing services. (And the pictures won’t even be accessible to the public, as they were when Google worked on Time magazine’s archive.) But it’s still a neat glimpse into the history of the Times and shows how AI can make this sort of preservation effort richer and more accessible.


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