Wednesday, August 22, 2007

How to Build a Time Machine: New Perspectives on Time Travel in the Age of Virtuality

How humanity will be able to travel through time sooner than you think.

The idea of building a time machine has captivated the minds of scientists and science fiction writers ever since it was first introduced in the 18th century. From writers such as H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein to films such as Back to the future, Terminator and 12 Monkeys - time travel has aroused human imagination like few other themes.

Unfortunately time travel is still considered one of the few domains that seem to be an almost purely fictional idea. There are of course other far reaching science fictional themes, a few of which are space travel, the building of an artificial intelligence, uploading consciousness into computers or even becoming invisible - but all of these ideas are conceivable in theory and all of them are being pursued today by different means and strategies.

Time Travel, on the other hand, still seems to defy all logic. From all the ideas mentioned above this is not only the most imaginative and bold idea, but also the one that seems to be the most purely science fictional idea. How is one supposed to move through time? Most of the theoretical ideas raised by physicists who tacked this issue involved traveling inside a black hole... This is not a very welcoming approach to time travel. And as Stephen Hawking noted -"If time travel was ever to be possible - how is it that we are not flooded by tourists from the future?"

A new perspective on time travel

These old ideas about time travel has left us with an impasse, however history never does stop. Certain odd impossibilities become possible when circumstances change and new medias evolved. The immigration of humanity into the new realm of cyberspace seems to break the boundaries of reality as we have known it before. I would therefore like to point out here on new possibilities for time travel which are being shaped these days.

On August 2006 Apple announced a new and intriguing feature for its future operating system Mac Os X v10.5 Leopard called "The Time Machine". This new and innovative feature allows users to "travel through time" within their computer. The time machine feature allows the user to visit his computer in the past, use his old settings, view old files which have been revised or deleted and bring them back to life.

During the last year since the announcement of the time machine (due for October) there has been another feature of the web which has created quite a bit of commotion. In this short period of time the number of registered users in the virtual world Second Life has bounced from less than one million to over 7 million leading to the creation of an unprecedented rich virtual environment in which people go to concerts, visit prayer houses, make social connections and even make a living. Other virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft, Runescape and Guild Wars have also seen a surging boom in the last few years leading to such generous assessments such as the one released by Gartner lately, stating that by 2011 80% of Internet users will have a second life in a virtual world.

Virtual worlds signify another long foreseen metamorphosis in the evolution of the net. Cyberspace is finally about to fulfill the old expectations - it is about to become a truly 3 dimensional space. More importantly it is becoming a 4 dimensional space, because virtual worlds are not only 3 dimensional they are a dynamic 4 dimensional space which constantly changes through time. By now the reader is sure to be seeing where I am heading - combine these two extending trends - humanity's immigration into the virtual realm and the first pursuits to enable time travel within computerized space and you get new perspectives for time travel. When humanity will be living in this virtual 4 dimensional space, will we be able to move through time?

Virtual time travel

The last few years, since the emergence of the web, we have seen a few different web archive projects which were aimed to preserve the web at different stages of its development. The most famous of which is the Internet Archive with it's WayBack Machine which enables users to view web pages such as google or wikipedia the way they were years in the past.

Visiting these versions of old web pages is indeed like visiting the web's past. What will happen if humanity creates a virtual world archive which will record in a clever way all objects, conversations and actions which took place in the virtual world, into which mankind has immigrated. This will be a time machine, which will allow us to move back through time and see our world (our virtual world) as it was before. It will allow us to visit places and events that took place in the past and view them again. We will be able to relive old experiences from virtual worlds but also experience different environments and developments which we were unable to experience as they first happened. A person will be able to take part in an historic event which he has missed whether common to all people or personal like watching your parent's first date (well actually some data might be better off left classified). Alternatively you could go back in time and view a beautiful moment from your own life: meeting a good friend for the first time, your first kiss, revisit an old concert you went to years ago.

A person would be able to choose different perspectives to all these events. He may pick his own first person perspective, or alternatively choose to view that same event from the point of view of another person or from a God-like third person view. His entire past and the past of humanity will be open for him to view in this virtual time machine.

This sort of virtual time travel will also open the way for a new kind of mash-up time travel. The same way one can use the leopard time machine tool to restore just his desktop wallpaper or restore everything about his old computer, excluding his desktop wallpaper - one would be able to view his first kiss but transplant it from New York to the Amazon or vice versa. Our memories and perceptions of the past might in this way become objects for mash up and creative DJ engineering, as we conjure our past in any desired fashion.


There are of course still two major limitations to this kind of time machine.

1. One cannot go further back in time than the time when the machine was built. One also can't visit the future.

2. One is not able to change reality. This time travel is a passive sort of time travel. One does not get to truly enter the fabric of time and change the way things happened. One can not change causality.

These limitations are major limitations and for that reason I believe one should still aspire to create a "real" time machine. However since that task seems much less achievable at the moment, to my mind humanity should first strive to create a virtual time machine which would, in the meanwhile, enable us some of the benefits of time travel.

Different sorts of time machines could be developed by different virtual reality worlds - or the same time machine feature could be included in all virtual worlds. The main thing is that time travel will, in my opinion, prove to be a very economical idea, would have great popularity among virtual world residents and would attract many new users to virtual worlds. Seeing that I have no doubt that the incentive to build it is already here and hope that it's emergence will be rapid as possible.


Mendel B said...

Wow, excellent article.
This is the way to build a time machine! waiting to go back in time inside of WOW

Tomer said...

Thanks for your post. See:

Anonymous said...

that is kind of useless to be honest. Time trawelling in the game. I mean come on, it's sad. Besides you are not going to experience anything new. You will just sit in front of your PC and re-watch what happened, or re-make it. If you opens history book it might be more breathtaking and you might learn something new. But I do admit, it's a cool idea and fun, if you have too much of a free time on your hands.