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On technology, time machines, and imagination

A long long time ago, when the land was owned by dinosaurs and man had not started breath­ing yet, times were sim­pler. There were no mobile phones or com­put­ers, no lasers or global posi­tion­ing satel­lites, no steam engines, cars, planes, clocks, radios, toaster waffles.

But here’s a pro­found thought: our under­stand­ing of physics tells us that the Laws are Nature immutable; they’ve been the same since the Uni­verse began (or for­ever, if you believe that it’s always just been). That means that any of our mag­i­cal and rev­o­lu­tion­ary devices that we’ve invented today with our clever mod­ern know-how would have just as eas­ily worked back in time, mil­lions of years ago, aeons before they were conceived.

Imag­ine then that we have a time machine (prob­a­bly a Tardis, so that it’s big enough on the inside to hold all our junk). We could load it up with radio tow­ers, diesel and gen­er­a­tors, and a load of mobile phones, and take them on a ride back in time. Set it all up and switch it on, and it would work! We’d be able to make phone calls, and sell monthly con­tracts to tyran­nosaurs so that they could keep in touch with the Daily Fossil!

Why is this excit­ing, I guess you are ask­ing? Hmm indeed.

Well, project your­self now to the future, the dis­tant future, maybe over 10,000 years from now. It’s plau­si­ble to expect that we would have solved many mys­ter­ies. We’ll know what dark energy is, and dark mat­ter too, and the Uni­verse will be our slave. We’ll have dis­cov­ered new phe­nom­ena, and devel­oped new tech­nolo­gies and mate­ri­als; our clothes will all have nano-scale detail­ing and we’ll all drive around in vehi­cles with the new Ubbba-Drive-4S, pow­ered by our own sense of satisfaction.

So then, what if one of our future selves dives into their Tardis-4S, packed with good­ies, and descends on our time­line? Arthur C. Clarke said that any suf­fi­ciently advanced tech­nol­ogy would be indis­tin­guish­able from magic, and so it would seem when your future-ganger switches on their 4D-Quanta-Viddy and holo­grams of your­self from all the adja­cent par­al­lel real­i­ties appear instan­ta­neously beside you. Magic indeed!

But the point is that their tech­no­log­i­cal toys would work in the here and now, rather nicely too. (Just imag­ine how much you could flog them for on E-Bay!) That is to say, that the only rea­son that we don’t have such mirac­u­lous fac­ul­ties avail­able to us today is not because the Uni­verse doesn’t sup­port such non­sense, but because no one has thought of it yet! It’s a lim­i­ta­tion of our imag­i­na­tions, not a limit of nature.

It is pos­si­ble for some­one, right here right now, to invent some amaz­ing tech­nol­ogy so amaz­ing that we would not recog­nise it in rela­tion to the world that we already under­stand. And the only thing stop­ping us from con­ceiv­ing of such things is our imag­i­na­tion, and the lim­i­ta­tions that we hold in place that pre­vent us from see­ing and under­stand­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties that are poten­tial­i­ties in the sys­tem that are avail­able to be harnessed.

So, how do you relate to the pos­si­bil­i­ties that are avail­able to you right now? My point is that there are known pos­si­bil­i­ties and unknown pos­si­bil­i­ties (apolo­gies to Rums­feld). Unless you hold a space avail­able in your imag­i­na­tion for the unknown ones you might never gen­uinely do any­thing that will sur­prise you, or aston­ish you, and the world will never ben­e­fit from that won­der­ful thing that only you could give birth to.

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3 Responses to “On technology, time machines, and imagination”

  1. I do some­times spend an evening try­ing to prove P != NP just on the offchance it hap­pens, or Goldbach’s con­jec­ture, or FLT (Fer­mat, not Einstein!)

    It leads to some fun insights (e.g. if there is a prob­lem not in NP whose solu­tions can be ver­i­fied in NP then P != NP — con­sider the con­tra­po­si­tion to see why) and deeper intu­ition (when you look at why it’s hard to prove P != NP you learn a lot about computability).

    No cigar yet though, but a Clay prize would sort a lot of money worries!

  2. Agrajag says:

    I can’t imag­ine what it would be like to have an unlim­ited imag­i­na­tion. Maybe there could exist some cool tech to help with that?

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