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Can AI Help With Genealogy Research?

With all of the talk about AI, you might wonder if you can use it for your genealogy research. In this post, find out whether you can put this new technology to work on your family tree.

Can AI Help With Genealogy Research?

Anyone who has spent time building their family tree knows that genealogy research can take a lot of time and it can, at times, be frustrating and difficult. This is true even though technology has made our hobby, or in some cases, profession, easier over the generations.

For example, we now have access to billions of online family trees, maps, and indexed, digitized genealogy records in dozens of languages from many countries around the world that we can access right from home.

It is a logical question, then, to ask whether we can now use some of these newer AI tools to further help make our research easier.

I’ve been thinking about AI a lot over the past few years. There have been primitive AI tools in existence for several years that have had the capabilities of rewriting text found on the internet, and many people have used this type of software to rewrite the original content on my website to claim as their own, which I have found to be very disappointing.

Artificial intelligence is not actually a new thing. Scientists and programmers have been working on a concept called “machine learning” since the 1960s, and the field has developed at a quick pace along with advances in computing.

What is really new to us is the accessibility of AI tools to the general public and a proliferation in how the tools can be used. Anyone with a smartphone, tablet, or computer can access a variety of AI tools for free.

Anyone who participates in the creative or intellectual arts, including writing, painting, music, and other fields, might find themselves wary of AI, just like me. However, it is clear that publicly accessible AI tools are probably here to stay in some form, and so it’s time to learn how we can use them responsibly in our family tree research.

Can AI help build your family tree?

Yes, AI can and does help with family tree research. However, this technology cannot build our family tree for us.

If you build your family tree online, on a site like Ancestry, for example, there is a good chance that you have already benefited from AI technology. Ancestry and some other companies have been using AI to read, index, and in some cases, transcribe, hand-written genealogy records for a number of years.

In addition, other popular tools that we might use to help understand documents, such as Google Translate, use AI to provide results. Google Translate uses machine learning for contextual translations.

You can upload a hand-written image in another language to Google Translate and it will provide you a translation in English. How’s that for cool?

AI is not a substitute for research

AI tools are not robust or accurate enough today to provide meaningful help in researching details about our ancestors. Unless your ancestors were famous and have had many things written about them on the internet, AI prompts will likely not provide good results.

During my research for this post, I used three different AI “chat bots” to see how they could help. I used Gemini, the free version of Chat GPT, and Micosoft CoPilot.

Even though I already thought that I knew what would happen when I tried using these tools to learn about my ancestors, I did make real prompts to see what kind of results I would get.

When I asked a specific detail about an ancestor born in 1815, two of the tools told me that they didn’t know enough about the person to answer the question. That’s honest enough, I suppose, since I don’t know the answer to the question, either.

On the third tool, I thought I would ask it to write a biography about one of my ancestors born in Chicago in the 1880s. I know that there are some small newspaper articles about him, including a lengthy obituary, so I figured this would be a “fair” assignment.

I gave the tool my ancestor’s first, middle, and last name as well as their year and place of birth.

The tool wrote a very long, well-written biography about my ancestor that was completely fabricated. My ancestor was a blacksmith, and the biography described his career as a brilliant electrical engineer.

I tried this request again on the same tool with a different ancestor, and I got another brilliant, yet completely made-up, biography. I tried this same request on the two other tools, I got a biography about the wrong person on one, and an error message on the last tool I tried.

Why don’t these AI tools work better for genealogy?

The reason that these AI tools don’t currently work well for genealogy is because of where these tools get their information. Put very simply, these tools “learn” from all of the information that is published and indexed on the internet.

If the information about your ancestor is not published in an accessible form on the internet, the AI chat bot will not have access to it. You may know that your ancestor’s information is on an Ancestry family tree, but the chat bot is not currently able to access family trees on Ancestry or understand queries enough to search through a database on a third-party site.

Most of the information that these AI tools use to create their base of information comes from the same website that you would find it if you did your own Google search on the same topic. In other words, there is no information that these chat bots or AI tools can give you that you can’t easily find yourself, as long as it is actually publicly available and published online.

As of today, a genealogist is much better off performing their own Google search about a specific ancestor. This is because you are still better at evaluating accuracy of potential information about your ancestors than a machine would be.

It’s very important to make sure that the information we post to our family trees and publish in our written histories is accurate. We certainly don’t want to contribute incorrect information to historical record going forward and have our work be what it used to perpetuate myths about our ancestors.

How might AI be able to help genealogists in the future?

Even though these public-facing AI tools are lacking for family tree researchers today, it looks like there are technologies being developed that might help genealogists in the future. There is a lot of opportunity in history and family tree research to use the potential of AI.

Identify the people in old photographs

Even though we can already use AI to identify the people in old photographs, it isn’t easy to integrate into our family tree work. I imagine the day when we can just upload a photograph to Ancestry or our favorite family tree site, and AI tells us who the photograph might be based on the millions of photographs already uploaded and labeled on the site.

Automatic family trees

In theory, it should eventually be possible for a family tree to be “automatically” generated for a given individual. I don’t think this idea would be very good, since I’m sure that a lot of the family trees used as input for this “automatic” tree would be riddled with errors.

Even though I don’t think it’s a great idea, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it come to fruition someday. Many people are not interested in putting in the detailed work of building a family tree, so I can see the temptation of an “automatic” family tree being generated.

It would also be interesting to see more development in connection between DNA results, specifically DNA matches, and family tree building. This “automatic” family tree could, in theory, be more accurate than only using other family trees as input.

There will always be things that computers can never know about us, or at least I think that’s the case. This means that there will be a need for a human touch on a family tree for a long time to come.

Determine authorship

Last year, I heard a literature researcher discussing how AI can be used to determine authorship of a literary work. The idea is that you can input known works of the author and then the work in question, and the program can determine the likelihood that it was written by the person who we think wrote it.

I can imagine this, or something like it, being used to help people confirm who wrote old letters, or confirm whose handwriting it is.

More handwriting transcription

I feel like AI has the potential to do a much better job understanding handwriting and doing transcription work. There are many tools that already do this, but the results are mixed.

I anticipate a lot of development on this front over the next several years as the technology improves. This will save a lot of time most transcription work is currently done by people, and it is slow work.

Once AI gets better at transcribing, we will see a huge growth in the number and quality of records we can find online.

Ways to use AI for your family tree research

As I mentioned earlier, there are a few ways that we can use AI in our family tree research, even if we can’t use these tools to build our trees for us. Below are a few things you can try today.

Google Translate

When I started researching for this article, I didn’t know that you can upload an image to Google Translate and get a translation. I learned this when I asked Microsoft Copilot if it could translate images, ironically.

When I tried it with my great-great grandmother’s German-language baptismal certificate, Google Translate, which uses machine learning and AI, translated a detail that I had not noticed before. I learned the town of her father’s birth, which was previously unknown to me.

I can’t read German very well, so this detail had previously escaped me.

I got so excited that I stopped writing the article and found her father’s baptismal record in Germany, which I thought was pretty neat.

Google Photos

You can create a free Google Photos account and create an album for your old photographs. As you upload, identify the people that you know using “tags”, just like we would do on social media.

Then, as you upload new photos, the AI technology will automatically recognize many of those faces from the additional photos. While you might not get everyone identified, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Chat GPT for a “life story” template

You can use Chat GPT to provide a nice template for writing a short biography about your ancestor. Just prompt the tool to give you a biography about your ancestor and provide the details that you know, and let the tool do its work.

Then, copy the results into a Word document and edit and add until you have the story that you want. The initial results from the tool can serve as inspiration for your writing the biography, which you can then upload to Ancestry or other sites to share.


I hope that this post has helped you understand a little more about how people are using, or hoping to use, AI in the field of genealogy. I’m sure we will see many more developments on this topic over the next few years and that we will have access to more information and tools than we could ever imagine in a decade.

If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or if you would just like to give your ideas about whether you think these tools are helpful or harmful to genealogy, I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.

Thanks for reading today!

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Dennis J. Cox

Sunday 25th of February 2024

Strictly out of curiosity, I played around with Microsoft CoPilot to see what information would be made available for a selection of my ancestors, both immigrant and during the American Revolution. They included Richard Ingersoll who immigrated in 1629, Deacon Edward Converse who immigrated with Winthrop in 1629, and Jason Russell, a victim of the start of the American Revolution 19 April 1775. The results were interesting but pointed out some majority failing of AI in gathering and presenting information, namely, found online sources, many of which contained erroneous information. Fun to play with, dangerous to use as a source - recommend sticking with good, old-fashioned "boots-on-the-ground" research where potential source information can be scrutinized to weed out potential issues before your familoy tree becomes corrupted with bad information.

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