Impact case study: The science of stories
AI in Antiquity and the Science of Stories: from improving uptake of Classics in schools to informing the design of human-machine interactions
AI, robots, and cyborgs unexpectedly play a role in classical myths and narratives that are almost 3,000 years old. Ancient storytellers such as Homer, Hesiod, and Ovid describe cyborg slave girls made of gold, a humanoid bronze giant, and ships that ‘navigate by thought’. Professor Liveley’s research into these ancient myths - and their reception by subsequent generations of storytellers - shows that public attitudes towards the future of AI in society are shaped, or ‘programmed’, by their experience of AI, robots, and cyborgs in fiction. Further, it reveals that 21st century stories about this supposedly new science are repeating very ancient patterns.
Classics studies in schools: increased uptake and improved teacher-training
In 2017, the number of school students taking any classical subject at GCSE level dipped to an historic low of 14,480. A Level numbers decreased by 27.4% in the period 2016-2020 (source: FFT Education Data Lab Analysis).
Recognising the threat to the skills pipeline for the discipline and its future research base, Professor Liveley set about applying the two related strands of her research into storytelling,and into ancient myths about AI, robots, and cyborgs, to drive forward the sustainable uptake of Classical subjects at primary and secondary levels, with particular focus on the state sector.
She received a project grant from charity Classics for All to launch a regional hub to work towards widening access to Classics. Over 2016-2020, the hub worked with 105 state schools across the South West and Wales (24 primaries and 81 secondaries), delivering workshops, conferences, and competitions; training and mentoring non-specialist teachers; both designing and providing physical and digital teaching resources; and facilitating access to national grant schemes. Thanks to this activity, 67 schools secured funding from Classics for All grant schemes, enabling more than 10,500 students overall to be involved in regular Classics for All-funded classroom activities in the South West and Wales between 2016 and 2020.
In December 2017, Professor Liveley engaged six schools as her community partners in the co-creation of a new set of classroom resources on the ‘Science of Stories’ (SoS), which has since been distributed to over 600 schools nationwide.
Teacher responses to SoS
- "The cross-curricular thinking that SoS inspires has changed teaching practice."
- "Our school has used the SoS resources as a way to enrich the teaching practice of the science department, using it as a form of extension and differentiation."
- "SoS has led to the school actually offering Latin/Classics as a subject, where previously it wasn’t."
- "Simply put, Classics wouldn't be where it is now in our school without [your] support, and hundreds of children would never have encountered the ancient world in a classroom setting."
In her role as Chair of the local branch of the Bristol Classical Association, Professor Liveley also relaunched a regional Latin drama festival to support English teachers in secondary and primary schools in encouraging students to perform Latin stories, which has now been made an annual event.
She has also collaborated with We The Curious to co-create new story-focused activities and events (‘Telling Stories About Robots’) and to enhance staff training; and advised the Roman Baths Museum on their ‘Minerva’s Owls’ project, helping them to secure external seed-funding and rewrite their family trails with a new focus on science and story.
Statistics: improved uptake across the UK
Each year, 4,000+ pupils across 75 state schools (59 secondaries and 16 primaries) in the South West and Wales who previously were not offered any Classics now experience some form of Classics on the curriculum; another 9 schools now offer extra-curricular Classics – and 15 schools have introduced a new Classics subject at GCSE or AS Level, including GCSE Greek.
As a result of Professor Liveley’s research-informed engagement with schools over 2016 to 2020, entries in Classical subjects at GCSE have increased across the UK since 2017, with a +6.6% increase from 2016-2020 (over the same period, the 16-year-old population has changed by +0.8%).
Classics education during Covid
At the start of the COVID-19 school closures in March 2020, the PGCE Director of English at UWE contacted all PGCE English Partnership Schools recommending the ‘excellent resources from the University of Bristol’ among a pack of online resources for the community to use during the crisis. One teacher from Wales, who piloted the ‘Olympus Challenge’ through the Hub reports that: ‘In a year where regular examination has been disrupted, the Olympus Challenge stands out as the single great, tangible achievement since the summer’.
Turing Fellowship: Towards a new AI narrative morphology
Professor Liveley’s research in narratology, together with her impressive impacts in the field, has led to her being awarded a Turing Fellowship (2018-2021) to investigate the ancient and future (hi)stories of AI and robots.
By analysing 3,000 years of enduring and changing preferences and antipathies in robot and AI stories, this research aims to produce new knowledge about the narrative scripts and frames that are deployed when humans and autonomous/intelligent machines interact. In so doing, it will help to inform and shape the design of AI services that are tailored to people's individual needs and situations and inform the technological narrative of the future.
It will also help to provide proof of concept for the feasibility (and utility) of large-scale diachronic digital data analysis of story-form and build the first open access, searchable/expandable database of AI representation in the Western canon. In so doing, the project will highlight what we can learn about the future of AI in society from the history of AI in stories – from ancient myths to modern movies and media representations.
Genevieve Liveley is a Professor in the University of Bristol's Department of Classics & Ancient History, a RISCS Fellow, and a Turing Fellow. Her research has been funded by Classics for All, and the Institute for Greece, Rome, and the Classical Tradition.