As technology like AI propels us into the future, it can also play an important role in preserving our past

Scenic photo of Le Mont-Saint-Michel

It’s hard to ignore the anxieties and even polarization that one sees in so many places around the world today. The forces of globalization are reshaping our communities in tangible ways. Increasingly, more people voice concerns about their place in society and their cultural identity and heritage. We see this not only in the United States, but across Europe, in Asia and elsewhere.

Technology has played a big role in accelerating globalization. While it’s our business to advance technology, we also believe that technology should respect and even help protect the world’s timeless values. That conviction has led us to announce today a new and fourth pillar to Microsoft’s AI for Good portfolio – our $125 million, five-year commitment to use artificial intelligence to tackle some of society’s biggest challenges. This new pillar will focus on AI for Cultural Heritage.

The modern-day threats to cultural heritage are dramatically illustrated through the future of languages, the verbal expression of culture. According to UNESCO,  today one-third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers, and every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker. It is predicted that between 50 and 90 percent of endangered languages will disappear by the next century. When the world loses a language, we all lose an important piece of human history, and a community loses its ability to connect and communicate with its past.

An appreciation of cultural heritage can also help advance broader opportunities and a more inclusive future. For example, as we’ve partnered and worked with Nobel Media, we’ve discovered together new ways to use technology to raise awareness of scientific breakthroughs made by women, including in an online experience called “Women Who Changed Science,” which celebrates pioneers like Marie Curie and Marie Goeppert-Mayer.

As we have learned more about the dimensions that make up cultural heritage, we’ve concluded that preserving cultural heritage isn’t something that is solely nice to have or nice to do, it’s sometimes imperative to the well-being of the world’s societies. According to the United Nations, cultural heritage can help foster resilience, reconciliation and social cohesion by connecting us with shared history, customs, origins and beliefs.

Our new AI for Cultural Heritage program will use artificial intelligence to work with nonprofits, universities and governments around the world to help preserve the languages we speak, the places we live and the artifacts we treasure. It will build on recent work we’ve pursued using various aspect of AI in each of these areas, such as:

  • Work in New York , where we have collaborated with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and MIT to explore ways in which AI can make The Met’s Open Access collection accessible, discoverable and useful to the 3.9 billion internet-connected people worldwide.
  • Work in Paris at the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, where we have partnered with two French companies, HoloForge Interactive and Iconem, to create an entirely new museum experience with mixed reality and AI that paid homage to Mont-Saint-Michel, a French cultural icon off the coast of Normandy.
  • And in southwestern Mexico, where we’re engaged as part of our ongoing efforts to preserve languages around the world to capture and translate Yucatec Maya and Querétaro Otomi using AI to make them more accessible to people around the world.

These projects have given us confidence that we can put AI to innovative uses that can help communities expand access to culture and explore new perspectives and connections through shared experiences. We’ve realized that this work deserves more than a handful of projects. That’s why we’re bringing these efforts together in a more comprehensive program that will explore and pursue new opportunities with institutions around the world.

As with our three other AI for Good Programs — AI for Earth, AI for Accessibility and AI for Humanitarian Action — we look forward to innovating and learning together with individuals and institutions around the world. And we look forward to sharing what we learn with others in the hope that we can all help inspire each other to use the planet’s most advanced technology to help preserve some of the world’s timeless values.