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Transcript: What We Learned From 5 Million Books at TED Talk

Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel

Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel on What We Learned From 5 Million Books at TED Talk event….


Erez Lieberman Aiden: Everyone knows that a picture is worth a thousand words. But we, at Harvard, were wondering if this was really true. So we assembled a team of experts, spanning Harvard, MIT, The American Heritage Dictionary, The Encyclopedia Britannica and even our proud sponsors, the Google. And we cogitated about this for about four years. And we came to a startling conclusion. Ladies and gentlemen, a picture is not worth a thousand words. In fact, we found some pictures that are worth 500 billion words.

Jean-Baptiste Michel: So how did we get to this conclusion? So Erez and I were thinking about ways to get a big picture of human culture and human history change over time. So many books actually have been written over the years. So we were thinking, well the best way to learn from them is to read all of these millions of books. Now of course, if there’s a scale for how awesome that is, that has to rank extremely, extremely high. Now the problem is there’s an X-axis for that, which is the practical axis. This is very, very low.

Now people tend to use an alternative approach, which is to take a few sources and read them very carefully. This is extremely practical, but not so awesome. What you really want to do is to get to the awesome yet practical part of this space. So it turns out there was a company across the river called Google who had started a digitization project a few years back that might just enable this approach. They have digitized millions of books. So what that means is, one could use computational methods to read all of the books in a click of a button. That’s very practical and extremely awesome.

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