Study finds even time travellers aren't using Google+ (or Twitter, or Facebook, or Bing)

How would we know if time travellers have visited our time period? By looking for tweets, of course.

In the early years of the last decade there was a trend of people posting on internet forums claiming to be time travellers from the future. The most famous of these was John Titor, a name used by someone through 2000 and 2001, claiming that they were visiting from the year 2036.

Titor’s predictions ranged from the geopolitical to the scientific. He would share scans of the schematics for his time machine - installed inside a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette, no less - and claimed that 2004 would see a worldwide nuclear war that would reduce the United States to civil war.

We can be pretty sure Titor wasn’t a time traveller. His claim that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics was correct (and that, therefore, if something doesn’t happen in one timeline, it has to have happened in at least one other) is a convenient get-out clause for his incorrect predictions, many of which reflect the major events and scandals of the time like mad cow disease. He completely misses 9/11 and the war on terror, too, which is a pretty big omission.

How, though, can we be sure that there wasn’t a real John Titor out there, leaving a trail of predictive crumbs on some small message board in a corner of the web?

Physicists Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson from Michigan Technological University have a neat paper called, suitably enough, “Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers”, and it proposes three methods for seeking out evidence of of time travellers on the web. Spoiler: they don’t find anything. But it’s still an interesting idea to consider.

In August 2013, Nemiroff and Wilson searched for posts made between January 2006 and September 2013 that mentioned either or both of two terms: “Pope Francis” and “Comet ISON”. These were chosen because they’re very unique terms - Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first pope to take the name Francis, and Comet ISON is the only comet to have that particular name - and are therefore unlikely to have been mentioned by chance before they were coined (in March 2013 and September 2012, respectively).

There were three ways to see if anyone had let slip those terms before they should have. The first was a simple search using Google, Bing, Google+, Facebook, and Twitter, and it actually turned up a result - a blog post where someone talked about a future “Pope Francis”. “Butbut upon close inspection and consideration,” the authors wrote, “that blog post was deemed overtly speculative and not prescient.”

Second was to dig into what people had been searching for on search engines like Google during that time period. “A time traveller might have been trying to collect historical information that did not survive into the future, or might have searched for a prescient term because they erroneously thought that a given event had already occurred, or searched to see whether a given event was yet to occur,” Nemiroff and Wilson write. Google Trends doesn’t show anything for either search term, and neither Bing nor Yahoo! offer that kind of detail.

The researchers even get access to Nasa’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website stats, and have a dig around to see if anyone ended up landing on the homepage thanks to searching for Comet ISON. Still nothing.

The third (and final) method was interactive, asking time travellers to go back in time and reveal themselves by tweeting or emailing one of two phrases - #ICanChangeThePast2 or #ICannotChangeThePast2 - on or before August 2013. The two phrases were chosen because neither hashtag had ever been used before this study, and the researchers hoped that any time traveller who obliged would clear up a fundamental question about how time travel works.

But, of course, they did a search for the hashtags before revealing the request in September 2013, and inevitably nobody seemed to have travelled back in time to tweet or email.

What can we conclude from this? “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,” the researchers write, “they are by no means proof.” There are all kinds of reasons why there might not be evidence left behind by time travellers, from the physical impossibility of changing the past to them simply being very good at covering their tracks. It wasn’t a comprehensive search either - all we know is that time travellers don’t use Twitter or Google Plus if they come back.

“This search might be considered the most sensitive and comprehensive search yet for time travel from the future,” the researchers write. The truth may be out there, but requires further investigation.

It's a clock, flying through time. (Image: Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.