What AI Can and Can't Do for Family History Research

How AI Can and Can’t Help You With Your Family History Research

Despite how recently this technology has been made available to the public, artificial intelligence is already vastly changing the way people are conducting research online (among many other tasks). But can AI help you with your family history research?

The not-so-surprising answer to this question is yes, it can – but the ways in which it can be useful may not be so obvious. In this article we briefly explore how AI tools can help you build a better family tree and take a look at what they are not designed to do.

For more help using AI in your own research, take our online AI for Family History Research Course. This course covers a number of tools that are helpful for family historians and explains, in detail, how to implement the suggestions covered in this article. 

What AI Cannot and Cannot Do For Your Family History Research

AI for Family History

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Before we explore how AI can (and cannot) help you, there are a couple of important points to keep in mind:

1. You should always be careful to protect your own privacy, and that of others, when interacting with AI tools. Assume that whatever you put into an AI (just like a search) may be stored and used by that tool in the future. This is not to say that well-respected systems aren’t putting in a good deal of effort to protect individuals, but there are very few rules or laws in place monitoring or restricting them. Be wary.

Avoid entering personally identifying information and never enter financial details into an AI chat box, even if prompted. Always choose tools that have a solid reputation. If you’ve been following the news about AI at all, you are probably aware that even the most well-known of these tools are already experiencing serious questions about how they handle user data and how they consolidate and share the information others have created.

2. AI is often inaccurate. These systems analyze vast amounts of information from a large number of sources in an effort to answer user requests. This means that the answers they provide often contain incorrect assumptions and combinations of data that are inaccurately compiled and presented.

In some cases, AI will even fabricate information to answer a question, either using an incorrect combination of facts or ones it has imagined itself (a phenomenon called AI hallucination). As fascinating as this is, it provides a major roadblock for doing solid, accurate research.

3. Many AI systems do not cite their sources, or may incorrectly cite them. This is especially true of tools that don’t regularly access web searches and were trained from compiled data sources (such as ChatGPT 3.5).

But this also true, very unfortunately, with tools where you would expect to receive proper sourcing (such as from Google Bard). Keep your eye out for this and remember that a fact without a source needs to be independently verified. As with any family history research, never trust unsourced information.

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4. This guide does not cover everything AI can potentially help you with – people are discovering new ways to put these tools to use every day. AI systems are being developed at lightning speed and current offerings are being improved constantly. As you explore them on your own you may even discover some new uses yourself.

What AI Cannot (Currently) Do For Your Research

Can AI Find My Ancestors

Most people who are interested in using AI for genealogical research naturally wonder how much direct information about their ancestors these systems can provide. Since communicating with AI can feel like a more personal and efficient way to gather information than using a search engine, the idea is very appealing.

But, while a number of record subscription sites like Ancestry and MyHeritage are using AI behind the scenes to make record suggestions and connections, no tool available to the public can (yet) simply build a family tree for you or, in many cases, answer direct queries about your ancestors.

This is because AI systems are designed to complete tasks based on the information they are given.

Most public AI systems do have access to vast amounts of data through the databases they were trained with and/or search results – but, since most genealogical record collections are not accessible through a general search (or stored in the databases AI tools have access to) their access to genealogical data is limited. 

AI systems with access to search will often be able to provide more up-to-date and, sometimes, relevant responses to your queries – and may even turn up searchable pages containing information about your ancestors – but this information is limited to what is openly available online, just as a Google search is.

If your ancestors can be found in publicly available record collections that are accessible by a search engine, and are not behind a log-in request or paywall, some AIs will find and share the information in these records with you. These records are often text-based indexes and transcriptions that have been freely published by non-profits, government organizations and volunteers or those that come from amateur websites dedicated to a single family.

However, details about a good number of people in your family tree may only be found in records held by various institutions, whether that be a paid site like Ancestry, a large free site a such as FamilySearch, or one of the thousands of other online repositories that contains genealogical records. Because these records cannot be accessed by search bots you will not find them with AI either.

This means that if you ask an AI system with search capabilities to help you locate the parents of your great, great Aunt June, you may get some help and you may not. It depends on the availability of the data about her. Using AI with the hope of uncovering specific family history records will, more often than not, lead to disappointment. 

It is also vital to remember, as we discussed earlier in this article, that AI is accessing vast amounts of information in an attempt to answer a question. No matter how careful your prompt, AI systems can and do misinterpret and even make up information and share it as fact.

So, if you are lucky enough to discover information about an ancestor using one of these tools, be very cautious. Always check sources to verify what an AI tool tells you before adding anything to your family tree.

In addition to the data limitation, most AI tools have strict rules in place about accessing and sharing personal information about individuals. While many of the tools will attempt to provide you with sources that may contain the details you’re looking for, others may tell you that they simply cannot help with queries about individuals.

In our tests, Google Bard was the least likely search-enabled AI to provide assistance with genealogical questions for this reason. Others, such as Bing Copilot, Perplexity and ChatGPT 4 were often quite useful, depending on the prompt being used. Look for detailed help with these tools, and others, in our course.

Interestingly, other than a very basic attempt by MyHeritage (which we hope will improve in the near future) none of the major genealogy subscription companies have yet released an AI search tool themselves. With easy access to the records that are needed to answer genealogical queries, as well as privacy limitations that are already in place on these sites, several companies would be in a good position to do so. We would expect that this technology is made available relatively soon.

Feeling discouraged by this answer? Don’t be. There are still many actions AI can take to aid you in your research. Here’s how it can help.

How AI Can Help You Research Your Family Tree

How Can AI Help My Family History Research

1. AI tools can locate record collections that contain information about your ancestors

If a search for your ancestor using a search-enabled AI does not turn up direct details about them (as is common), the tool can sometimes help you find the resources you need to locate these records of interest instead – often in great detail, and usually much more efficiently than via a general search.

That means that while you often won’t get an answer to “Who are the parents of Ella Clark, who was born in New Hampshire in 1865?” you may get record collection suggestions based on this query.

You can also directly ask many of the available tools to tell you where to find record collections for a specific location and time period, or record types that contain a detail you may need (such as a maiden name). When correctly prompted, they will often link to specific collections you can search.

Since many AIs utilize web searches to provide information, they can be a good way to discover sites that may otherwise get buried in a typical search. Whether you’re trying to find information about a particular person, or better understand what record collections and resources might help you discover your ancestors, the unique way in which AI systems analyze and relate information can turn up additional resources and save you time compiling and interpreting them yourself.

2. AI can help you better understand a location your ancestor lived in

This may include what records are available for a place in a specific time period, how shifting boundaries may have affected what records are available and where, what records may have been lost in a region, possible alternatives and more.

As with any AI prompt, always be as specific as possible when asking for what you need. If you’re hoping to discover what churches existed in a location in 1890, for instance, be clear about the location, the date(s) and why you need this information (perhaps you are looking for death records). All of these details will help the tool provide the best response.

If you’ve read our guide about understanding specific locations for genealogical research, you know how useful this can be.

3. AI can help you better analyze your own family tree information

One of the fascinating things that certain AIs are now capable of is accepting uploaded user data and using that data to provide insights. Different tools provide varying levels of help with this, but ChatGPT 4 is by far the most robust.

You can use this capability to uncover buried information in your own tree or files, format your data in new ways, provide statistics or create visual representations of your family tree data (such as through graphs and mapped locations). ChatGPT 4 can accept uploaded GEDCOMs, PDFs, text files and even images.

Need help with any of the tasks on this list? Get 30% off our AI for Family History Research Course here.

4. AI can transcribe and translate documents quickly and (somewhat) accurately

Some AI tools, including ChatGPT 4, can now accept uploaded images of records and transcribe them into text for you – potentially saving you a great deal of time on this task or even helping you make sense of difficult to read handwritten records. While typed records will usually produce a more accurate transcription, our tests with handwritten records were surprisingly accurate. And it’s very easy to do.

You can also use ChatGPT, and some other tools, to translate documents. While our tests using AI to translate where mixed in terms of accuracy, this can be a very helpful way to make sense of foreign language documents you encounter.

5. AI can help you create forms and add information to them

Would you like to create a form to use in your research, such as a Research Log or Timeline? Or perhaps a detailed report of information found in your family tree?

ChatGPT can help you with this task. It can even add your own family tree information to the forms you create. Using very detailed prompts are vital when asking it to create forms, however, so be sure to experiment until you get it right. Look for lessons in our course for help with this.

We hope this guide gives you a better idea of how AI can and cannot be put to use for genealogy research. Our focused AI course covers each of these topics, and others, in detail.

It will help you understand what AI is, how to use it safely, which tools are available, how to access them (we’ve covered the six best options, as well as the differences between ChatGPT 3.5 and 4) and how to best communicate with these tools to get the information you need.

Find the course here or discover more about all of our self-paced, online courses in our Course Center.

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