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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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.