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Offline Gigaview

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Searching for Time Travelers Probably a Waste of Time
« Online: 11 de Janeiro de 2014, 00:27:06 »
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Searching for Time Travelers Probably a Waste of Time

After carrying out the first search for evidence of time travelers using social media networks, a pair of physicists have turned up empty handed. This search for "prescient" messages online has yet to be picked up by a peer-reviewed journal, but the media has jumped on the news nonetheless.

Although I filed this research under “There’s too much cool sciencey stuff coming from the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C. this week for me to find the time to write about time travel,” I’ve received a few emails pointing me to this work. So, as it’s Wednesday,* here we go.

Prescience in the Search Engine

The crux of the study by astrophysicist Robert Nemiroff and physics graduate student Teresa Wilson from Michigan Technological University is that they carried out an unprecedented search of the Internet for any signs of prescient knowledge of future events. Of particular interest was any mention of “Comet ISON” or “Pope Francis”. The idea is that should time travelers travel back in time from the future and arrive before Comet ISON was discovered (in September 2012) or before Pope Francis was elected head of the Catholic Church (in March 2013), they might have accidentally (or otherwise) let slip about these future events on an Internet-based platform. Both search terms were considered unique enough for there to be a very low chance of false positives.

Searching for prescient information on the Internet proved to be a somewhat tricky affair, however.

For example, using Google Search to tease out prescient mentions of “Pope Francis” or “Comet ISON” turned out to be “unreliable.” As did Google’s competitor Bing.com. The researchers then turned to social media for help. They carried out searches of all the popular social sites including Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Facebook, however, was another unreliable source of prescient messages as the platform allows back-dated messages to be published.

Twitter, it seems, reigned supreme. Yay Twitter.

“Our most comprehensive search for potentially prescient Internet content was achieved using the microblogging Internet platform Twitter,” they wrote.

Assuming our temporal travelers were social media savvy, Nemiroff and Wilson found that hashtags (“#”) were an especially useful tool for their hunt. They therefore tried to weed-out any mention of #cometison or #popefrancis before the events themselves occurred.

“No clearly prescient content involving ‘Comet ISON’, ‘#cometison’, ‘Pope Francis’, or ‘#popefrancis’ was found from any Twitter tweet — ever,” they concluded.

Interestingly, they also rummaged through search queries (i.e. queries typed into search engines by Internet users) to see if anyone was looking for information about “Comet ISON” or “Pope Francis” before the events occurred. This search also turned up zero definitive prescient candidates.

Come to my Party, Yesterday

Finally, they also tried to actively engage time travelers on Twitter. In September 2013, the hypothetical time travelers were asked, via an Internet forum bulletin, to tweet one of two hashtags on August 2013 — one month before the bulletin was sent out. Time travelers were requested to tweet either #ICanChangeThePast2″ or “#ICannotChangeThePast2″ — the first would be tweeted if the author’s past could be altered and the second would be tweeted if the author’s past could not be altered. A similar strategy was used by Stephen Hawking in 2009 who advertised a “Time Travelers Party” but only advertised the event after the party had taken place. Nobody — no candidate time travelers or random party crashers — turned up. Good effort though, Stephen.

This is the very basis of the “Grandfather Paradox” that posits that if reverse time travel were possible, could you go back in time and kill your grandfather. In this scenario, would you cease to exist in that timeline or would you cease to exist in another timeline? You remember when Marty McFly’s hand starts to disappear during The Enchantment Under The Sea dance in “Back To The Future”? That paradox.

Using both passive and active means to find evidence of time travelers, no strategy turned up evidence of time traveler activity. “No time travelers were discovered,” they wrote. “Although the negative results reported here may indicate that time travelers from the future are not among us and cannot communicate with us over the modern day Internet, they are by no means proof.”

Time Travelers: Not So Smart?

Although this Internet search was fun, and it demonstrates a potential strategy for teasing out prescient knowledge of events using social media, its limited scope greatly reduced any hope of success even if time travelers are out there. The study assumes that, a) travelers from the future want to be discovered or, b) they are careless to let slip about two specific future events. Both options I find difficult to swallow.

If the first option is true, and they used their future knowledge to be discovered, one would have to question their motives and/or sanity — aren’t they breaking some time traveling “code of ethics”? If b) is true, the intellect of our future selves could be called into question. If they can’t keep quiet and avoid babbling on social media, how the heck did they had the smarts to build a time machine in the first place?

Also, why would time travelers just pop onto the social web and start tweeting? No doubt they’d have the ability, but it’s hard to see what they’d get from it — apart from giggling at Justin Bieber’s “I’ve retired at 19″ tweets and lamenting that even in the year 2082, Biebs is still singing his little heart out and peeing into mop buckets.

And, why now? Sure, we think we’re important and our era is unbelievably epic, but in the grand scheme of things, over tens (or hundreds) of thousands of years of civilization (from the past to the undefined future) — not to mention all those billions of years when humans weren’t roaming around and polluting the planet — the early 21st century may not be all that.

Perhaps all the “cool” time travelers travel back to see the dinosaurs to experience the gritty Jurassic era; or explore ancient Rome to find out if Julius Caesar really was a tyrant or just misunderstood; or hit up the rowdy pubs of London during the Industrial Revolution? The problem with humans is that we all think we’re special, that this time in history is special and we are the specialest of all special entities in all of human history.

What if our future selves think we’re all a bit “meh” and crossed off the 21st century as a snooze fest? Assuming that these time travelers are even human! So many questions.

Scouring the Internet for prescient knowledge probably isn’t very reliable anyway. If we were to scale this up, research hundreds or even thousands of search terms that could have only been thought up right at the time of a specific event and devoted a supercomputer (or a distributed computer effort SETI@home style) to trawl the web for “prescient candidates,” the sheer number of false positives would likely cause the system to unravel. (Although, looking at the rapid advancement of computing, it’s not that inconceivable that we might build some form of artificial intelligence that can pick through the web, searching for messages from John Connor. Wait a minute.) The Internet is not infallible, after all, regardless on how full-proof the researchers think data from Twitter is.

Limitations of this study aside, traveling back in time isn’t thought to be physically possible anyway; only forward time travel is possible (and, actually, surprisingly easy) — unless you do some fancy stuff with wormholes. Time travel is therefore likely to remain firmly in the realms of science fiction. Also, there’s that inconvenient idea that even if reverse time travel were possible, you’d only be able to travel back as far as when the time machine was first constructed. Bummer.

All that said, if you are reading this and you’re from the future, please send me an email with 1) next week’s lotto numbers, 2) the next 10 years of Superbowl winners and, 3) blueprints for the warp drive, that would sure come in handy around about now. Thanks.

*Just kidding, it’s Tuesday.

Publication (pre-print): “Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers”, Robert Nemiroff & Teresa Wilson, 2013. arXiv:1312.7128 [physics.pop-ph]

UPDATE 1 (Jan. 10): I've just received my first email from a time traveling candidate! (Hi, 'Eli') Not sure if he's the real deal, but let's put it this way, I'll be betting on the next ten Superbowls.

http://news.discovery.com/space/searching-for-time-travelers-probably-a-waste-of-time-140109.htm
Brandolini's Bullshit Asymmetry Principle: "The amount of effort necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it".

Offline Derfel

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Re:Searching for Time Travelers Probably a Waste of Time
« Resposta #1 Online: 11 de Janeiro de 2014, 07:47:14 »
Por que se busca com expressões em inglês?

Offline Gigaview

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Re:Searching for Time Travelers Probably a Waste of Time
« Resposta #2 Online: 16 de Janeiro de 2014, 00:55:13 »
Em 1997, Art Bell entrevistou "Single Seven" no seu programa na rádio Coast-to-Coast AM que foi reprisado nesta semana no programa  de rádio "Art Bell Somewhere in time". Trata-se de um viajante do tempo, vindo de 2063, integrante de uma célula de viajantes num projeto de "climate change". Existem muitos debates na internet sobre essa entrevista. Para quem gosta de ficção científica e é ligado no tema, vale a pena ouvir. Achei no youtube:

<a href="http://www.youtube.com/v/9veV68Kz6Ng&amp;list=PL088F2A132605C51B" target="_blank" class="new_win">http://www.youtube.com/v/9veV68Kz6Ng&amp;list=PL088F2A132605C51B</a>

http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread625133/pg1
Brandolini's Bullshit Asymmetry Principle: "The amount of effort necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it".

Offline Gigaview

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Re:Searching for Time Travelers Probably a Waste of Time
« Resposta #3 Online: 12 de Fevereiro de 2014, 00:23:20 »
Verídico...

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Back in 2009 Prof. Stephen Hawking held a party at Cambridge University. He did not tell anybody about it.
He waited 4 years and then advertised it in 2013 as open to time travellers. Looks like nobody turned up. Surely that would have been a date no time traveller could resist. That's all they had to do is turn up.
Brandolini's Bullshit Asymmetry Principle: "The amount of effort necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it".

Offline Gigaview

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Re:Searching for Time Travelers Probably a Waste of Time
« Resposta #4 Online: 12 de Fevereiro de 2014, 00:36:45 »
Por que se busca com expressões em inglês?

A busca com expressões em outras línguas deve ser um projeto secreto conduzido pela CIA e o resultado da busca por expressões em inglês só foi divulgado porque não deu em nada. Pronto, já criei uma nova teoria da conspiração.
Brandolini's Bullshit Asymmetry Principle: "The amount of effort necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it".

Offline Gigaview

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Re:Searching for Time Travelers Probably a Waste of Time
« Resposta #5 Online: 14 de Maio de 2015, 21:46:32 »
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1975 Article On Internet Spying Not Written By Time Traveler, Probably


People often think about internet spying as relatively new. But the internet was used for spying before we even called it the internet—and when we look back at news articles from the era, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

As just one more in a long list of examples, take a December 1975 article by Tad Szulc in The Washington Monthly. Szulc explains that this new thing called the ARPANET (the packet-switched precursor to our modern internet) had the potential to be used by intelligence agencies for domestic intelligence purposes.

From the perspective of 2015, it almost reads like the warning of a time traveler who slipped back to 1975:

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The most significant thing about ARPANET is that it permits the instant connection of computers of different types, ranging from the huge ILLIAC IV to the commercial-class models produced by IBM and others. Complex switching techniques allowing these computers to “talk to each other” are considered a major technological break-through. The question that goes on haunting civil libertarians is whether ARPANET can be used for domestic intelligence by being hooked into CIA, FBI, military intelligence, White House, or other computer systems.

The American intelligence community has always been at the forefront of networked computing. And we now know that they helped build the precursors to our modern internet.

In 1975 it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Americans would one day have access to networked computing. Email had only been invented in 1971, and most civilians had no idea what it was. A critical mass of people getting online was still over two decades away. But people looking into tomorrow knew one thing for certain: Networked computing had the potential to be used to keep tabs on everybody in some capacity.

Later in the article, Szulc poses questions about “the next Nixon” and how ARPANET might be used against American citizens:

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There is no evidence, however, that ARPANET has been devised with domestic intelligence in mind. ARPA officials say that the network has never been employed for anything except the computerized exchange of military scientific data among the institutions forming ARPANET.

Still, the question lingers: Could the next Nixon order ARPANET to be turned into a police instrument, instantly telling every government agency everything there is to be known about every American citizen whose name has been recorded somewhere?
Yes, yes they could. And they did. So that’s that, I guess. You tried to warn us, time traveling journalist. But nobody would listen. Welcome to the future.
http://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/1975-article-on-internet-spying-not-written-by-time-tra-1703089185
Brandolini's Bullshit Asymmetry Principle: "The amount of effort necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it".

Offline Pedro Reis

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Re:Searching for Time Travelers Probably a Waste of Time
« Resposta #6 Online: 14 de Maio de 2015, 22:05:12 »
Pelo que eu sei a ARPANET foi concebida no contexto da Guerra Fria como resposta a uma preocupação dos militares sobre a vulnerabilidade de redes de comunicação a partir de centrais, no caso de um ataque nuclear. Mas existiam pesquisas semelhantes ( sobre redes de comutação de pacotes ) em outras partes. O objetivo não era a espionagem porque inicialmente só instituições militares eram usuárias do ARPANET.

Mas o cara teve muita visão para escrever isto em 1975, considerando-se que computação pessoal era um conceito que nem existia e que empresas privadas, aquelas que podiam arcar com os altos custos de ter um CPD, não estavam conectadas a ARPANET.

Tem certeza que esse cara não era mesmo um viajante do tempo?

Offline Pedro Reis

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Re:Searching for Time Travelers Probably a Waste of Time
« Resposta #7 Online: 14 de Maio de 2015, 22:07:33 »
Mas falando sério, se viajar no tempo dessa forma fosse possível eu não vejo por que isto seria mantido em segredo. Seria a solução para tudo, em vez de colonizarmos marte, poderíamos recolonizar a própria Terra de 10 mil anos atrás.

Um planeta escassamente povoado e ainda repleto de recursos.

Offline Buckaroo Banzai

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Re:Searching for Time Travelers Probably a Waste of Time
« Resposta #8 Online: 14 de Maio de 2015, 22:11:56 »
A viagem no tempo só é permitida entre 2256 e 3267. Teve que ser imposto o limite a fim de evitar bagunçar demais com a história. Mas mesmo assim a acumulação gradual estava dando muito trabalho, e proibiram novamente.

http://www.totally100percenttruesecretinfo.info/time_travel_legislation

Offline Gigaview

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Re:Searching for Time Travelers Probably a Waste of Time
« Resposta #9 Online: 25 de Outubro de 2015, 00:25:34 »
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The philosophical problem of killing baby Hitler, explained




Given certain assumptions, this isn't a hard question. Assume that going back in time merely eliminates Hitler, and that the sole effect of that is that the Nazi Party lacks a charismatic leader and never takes power in Germany, and World War II and the Holocaust are averted, and nothing worse than World War II transpires in this alternate reality, and there are no unintended negative consequences of time travel. Then the question is reduced to, "Is it ethical to kill one person to save 40-plus million people?" That's pretty easy. You don't have to be a die-hard utilitarian to think one baby is an acceptable price to pay to save tens of millions of lives.

But, of course, those assumptions are strong. Too strong. Here are just a few of the issues you'd need to sort out before even starting to intelligently consider whether killing baby Hitler would be wise.



The Terminator went back in time. But in another, deeper sense, he was always there. Duh nuh nuh nuh duh nuh nuh nuh…
The first question here is whether backwards time travel is actually functionally possible. This is a different question from whether it's technically possible. It seems quite plausible that backward time travel could exist but that it would be impossible to actually change the course of history using it. This is how time travel is depicted in movies like 12 Monkeys or The Terminator, where, in my colleague Matt Yglesias's words, "temporal jumping simply turns out to be a feature of a universe that is nonetheless an unchanging four-dimensional block." In Terminator, for example, Kyle Reese is sent back to protect Sarah Connor, because her son John will later become an anti-Skynet resistance leader. But Reese winds up fathering John. His time travel was a part of the timeline all along.

This idea — that time travel could be possible, but must be consistent with the past as it has already taken place — is known among physicists as the Novikov self-consistency principle. It's possible that this principle is wrong, but it behooves people who think past-altering time travel is possible to explain how to avoid paradoxes. Take, for instance, the most famous time travel problem, the grandfather paradox: Suppose you go back in time and kill your grandfather before your mother/father has been conceived. This action creates a world in which you exist but your existence is logically impossible. Things like that just can't happen, which is why many physicists and philosophers embrace the Novikov self-consistency principle. The late, great philosopher David Kellogg Lewis explained this well in his 1976 paper "The Paradoxes of Time Travel":

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If Tim did not kill Grandfather in the "original" 1921, then if he does kill Grandfather in the "new" 1921, he must both kill and not kill Grandfather in 1921—in the one and only 1921, which is both the "new" and the "original" 1921. It is logically impossible that Tim should change the past by killing Grandfather in 1921. So Tim cannot kill Grandfather.

There are some fictional depictions of attempted retroactive Hitler assassinations that explain how this principle works in practice. In "Cradle of Darkness," an episode of the 2002-'03 reboot of the Twilight Zone, Katherine Heigl's character is sent back in time to kill baby Hitler. She succeeds — but Hitler's mother adopts another baby and raises it as Adolf, who grows up to lead the Nazi Party, start World War II, carry out the Holocaust, etc.

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/v/vDSq6QZJ2CE" target="_blank" class="new_win">https://www.youtube.com/v/vDSq6QZJ2CE</a>

Somewhat similarly, Eric Norden's 1977 novella The Primal Solution imagines an elderly Jewish scientist and Holocaust survivor attempting to go back in time, control Hitler's mind, and force him to drown himself. Hitler survives, identifies the force trying to kill him as Jewish, and becomes a vociferous anti-Semite, setting the Nazi rise to power and the Holocaust into motion.

These aren't very satisfying versions of Hitler-killing time travel. But they're versions that obey the Novikov self-consistency principle, and thus make considerably more internal sense than versions in which you really can go back in time and kill the actual Hitler.

Can we have any sense of what the ramifications of killing Hitler would be?




The actual Baby Hitler.

Okay, so time traveling metaphysics are tricky. Let's get ourselves out of this thicket, then, by supposing instead that no time traveling takes place and instead we're an Austrian living in the town of Braunau am Inn in 1889 who has a strong premonition that the wee baby Adolf is going to grow up to kill tens of millions of people, and we are thus driven to kill him. You know your predictions are correct. No time travel paradoxes are going to be created. Do you do it?

Well … maybe? It depends on quite a few factors. For one thing, baked into the premise of this question is the idea that the Nazis would not have risen to power, launched World War II, and carried out the Holocaust were it not for the existence of Adolf Hitler. You could certainly imagine a history in which Hitler didn't exist, the party lacked a charismatic leader, and it never came to power. Germany muddled through the Great Depression, the Weimar Republic kept going, and World War II never arose.

But you can also imagine a history in which another leader emerged who was even more effective than Hitler. This is the story offered by the comedian Stephen Fry in his novel Making History. In it, a history graduate student named Michael Young goes back in time and renders Hitler's father infertile. However, the Nazi Party still takes power, under a leader named Rudolf Gloder who, lacking Hitler's personal character flaws, is able to acquire nuclear weapons, obliterate Moscow and St. Petersburg, conquer almost all of Europe permanently, exterminate the continent's Jewish population, and carry on a cold war with the US indefinitely.

You could also imagine an alternate history where the Nazis don't take power but the Völkisch movement in post-WWI Germany gives rise to another virulently anti-Semitic regime, or at least a regime that also sparks a second world war. Or maybe Germany is fine, but absent WWII, tensions between the US and the Soviet boil into a hot war that is even bloodier and more destructive than the actual Second World War was. Maybe this war doesn't lead to the kind of postwar human rights revolution that WWII actually did, slowing the spread of liberal democracy and causing additional suffering for millions.

All of which is to say: We have no idea how the world would have differed if Hitler had died in infancy. We don't know how much weaker, or stronger, the Nazi Party would've been. We don't know if a second UK/France/Russia versus Germany war could've been avoided and, if so, whether another, bloodier war would've occurred instead. And unless we have answers on that, we can't know the consequences of killing Hitler and thus whether killing Hitler did more good than harm.

If we can't know if killing Hitler is right or wrong, can we know if anything is right or wrong?
This is actually a general problem for consequentialist moral theories — that is, theories where the morality of an action depends entirely on what the consequences of that action would be. In his classic 2000 paper "Consequentialism and Cluelessness," the University of Sheffield's James Lenman explained the issue using the case of a German bandit in the year 100 BCE attempting to decide whether to kill a distant ancestor of — you guessed it — Adolf Hitler:

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Imagine we are in what is now southern Germany a hundred years before the birth of Jesus. A certain bandit, Richard, quite lost to history, has raided a village and killed all its inhabitants bar one.This final survivor, a pregnant woman named Angie, he finds hiding in a house about to be burned. On a whim of compassion, he orders that her life be spared. But perhaps, by consequentialist standards, he should not have done so. For let us suppose Angie was a great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandmother of Adolf Hitler. The millions of Hitler's victims were thus also victims of Richard's sparing of Angie.



Do Hitler's crimes mean that Richard acted wrongly, in consequentialist terms? They do not. For Hitler's crimes may not be the most significant consequence of Richard's action. Perhaps, had Richard killed Angie, her son Peter would have avenged her, thus causing Richard's widowed wife Samantha to get married again to Francis. And perhaps had all this happened Francis and Samantha would have had a descendant 115 generations on, Malcolm the Truly Appalling, who would have conquered the world and in doing so committed crimes vastly more extensive and terrible than those of Hitler.

Lenman's point is that if morality is really about maximizing good consequences, then it's a problem that the immediate consequences of an action like killing an innocent villager can be swamped by the consequences thousands of years in the future, which no one could ever reasonably foresee. Maybe I met someone at a bar last weekend whose progeny 2,000 years from now will cause human extinction. That would imply that the worst thing I ever did in my entire life was refrain from murdering that bar acquaintance. This seems to imply that there's basically no way to know if you're making the right ethical decisions. Either ethical living is impossible, or a moral theory less dependent on actions' consequences is needed.

I'm less pessimistic than Lenman is. As Tyler Cowen argued in a response paper, the existence of serious uncertainty is important, and humbling, but doesn't render estimation of an event's likely effects totally impossible. If we know the near-term effects of foiling a nuclear terrorism plot are that millions of people don't die, and don't know what the long-term effects will be, that's still a good reason to foil the plot.

But the "epistemic critique," as Lenman's argument has come to be known, is important when we're considering less direct consequences, like the effects of murdering an infant in 1889 on war and peace in 1939. This isn't like foiling a nuclear bomb plot. We just don't know what the consequences of killing Hitler would've been at any point. That renders the problem of Hitler infanticide all but unsolvable.

http://www.vox.com/2015/10/24/9605406/killing-baby-adolf-hitler
Brandolini's Bullshit Asymmetry Principle: "The amount of effort necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it".

 

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