How to Build a Time Machine

Science and Technology to access our cultural roots in new ways

Torus Time Lab
Sep 18, 2019 · 10 min read

Our History is our common good. It is part of our cultural heritage to understand what our ancestors went through, built, produced, and left for us. The world we find when we arrived here is the world built by what came before. In the ongoing process of inhabiting this world through the generations and times, narratives can be erased, forgotten, archived or buried. Even the importance of looking back and understanding our cultural and historical heritage can be overlooked, intentionally or unintentionally.

What if technological innovations allowed us to increasingly access these files and data from the past, making them present? If we could develop technological tools with which we could reconstruct and simulate historical facts and data? What if access to this data from the past enabled us to build new futures? These are some of the challenges Time Machine Organization has sought to take seriously.

The Time Machine Project aims to develop what we might call the “Big Data of the Past,” a huge distributed digital information system that maps the social, cultural and geographical development of Europe through the ages. This endeavor jointly encourages the development of a state-of-the-art large-scale digitization and computing infrastructure. An effort that will enable Europe to transform its long history, as well as its multilingualism and multiculturalism, into a living economic and social resource, as well as helping to build futures.

The Pillars

The project has some key areas of action, which they call “pillars of research and innovation” which, in this case, are 4:

  1. Address the scientific and technological challenges of AI, robotics, and ICT for social interaction, develop the big data of the past, and further advance these core technologies (Pillar 1).
  2. Implement the constituent parts of Time Machine infrastructure and management principles and processes for sustainable Time Machine communities in Europe and elsewhere (Pillar 2).
  3. Create innovation platforms in promising application areas, bringing developers and users together to explore scientific and technological achievements and thus leverage Time Machine’s cultural, social and economic impact (Pillar 3).
  4. Develop favorable conditions for reaching all target groups and guide and facilitate acceptance of the research results produced during the initiative (Pillar 4).

It’s about Science and Technology, the first pillar that we’ll talk about in more detail here.

At the second meeting in a series in partnership between TORUS and Time Machine Europe, Gustavo Nogueira (Gust) hosted Andreas Maier and Gustavo Riva for a conversation. (Register here for upcoming warm-up meetings.)

Gustavo Riva is a medievalist and also has a research related to the digital humanism field, interested in the ways technology affects society and individuals and focuses on how it alters our understanding of the past. He develops his research in Germany and currently integrates the Institute of Medieval Studies at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa.

Andreas Maier is a computer scientist and expert in pattern recognition and machine learning topics. He leads the Pattern Recognition Lab at Friedrich-Alexander University (FAU) in Germany. His work focuses on the tomography of books and scrolls (meaning the ability to read them without opening them), the identification of writing and writers, and the fusion of deep learning with traditional techniques.


Gustavo Riva begins by pointing us to the complexity that the area of activity of Pillar 1 encompasses:

“It is a very large pillar, probably the largest with regard to the number of participants and partners. Most of the people involved in the Time Machine Project are implicated in some way here. It makes it extremely complex and structured in different areas” — Gustavo Riva

Pillar 1’s three areas of activity would be basically:

  1. Data
  2. Computing and Artificial Intelligence
  3. Social Sciences and Humanities

We will show what are the main objectives, characteristics and some already observable results of these areas of activity by the Project.

1. Data

The goal here is to enable continuous digital access to over 2000 years of linked historical data.

“Achieving this goal ranges from thinking about ways of acquiring data, that is, how we can access objects and materials in the real world and extract their information; going through the question of organizing this data into different structures; and arriving in the moment of making this data available for public access in terms of long-term preservation and the technologies needed for it “ — Gustavo Riva

This data is compiled from the most different materials such as books, maps, statues, paintings, among many others. Different materials that require different techniques and technologies. For this, Time Machine’s multidisciplinary team looks for joint ways to act in this area sharing their knowledge.

Some results already achieved:

  • The creation of digitization hubs: hotspots initiated by local digitization, the results of which can easily be aggregated to a pan-European data infrastructure.
  • Time Machine Box: Servers that allow partners to store their documents and metadata and easily integrate into the Time Machine network.
  • Time Machine Data Graph: Formal representation of knowledge extracted by human or automatic processes, represented with semantic technology of the web.

2. Computing and Artificial Intelligence

The goal at this point is to develop methods for exploring, connecting and simulating historical information from technological innovations. To reach it a considerable set of research areas are developed:

a. Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition: How computers transform data into information; important in the question of how to train machines to be able to read writing patterns, images and transcribe them.

b. Natural Language Processing: develops research into ancient European languages ​​from the few remaining sources, both in identification and translation.

c. Machine Learning and AI: Research that seeks the latest innovations that enable work with cultural heritage and ways to expand its access.

d. Human Computer Interaction and Visualization: development of technologies that are accessible to the widest possible audience from their specific interests, from academics and research institutes to the lay public.

e. Computer Graphics: seeks to think of ways of visual organization of the collected data.

f. Super Computing: Looks for ways to gather data and cross it in a way that makes sense.

“Interfaces are important to us at Time Machine. We want to have different methods that can integrate the project. We don’t want a single interface, but one that can just expand further. If you think about the Internet 30 years ago it was completely different than it is today. Hopefully we have a similar development in this project. “ — Andreas Maier

Some results achieved in this area were the creation of: an interface for annotations; an interface also for users; PNL tools for older language variants; Automatic text and image recognition tools. Also digital content processors and mechanisms that allow multidimensional representation of the collected data.

3. Social Sciences and Humanities

The goal here is to provide explanatory models of historical evidence that lead to new and plausible narratives, radically transforming the way social and human sciences engage and relate to the past.

“Basically here we consider that the digitization and analysis of big data from the past allows the social and human sciences a transformative radicalization with new approaches in their research. They allow us to ask questions that theoretically affect them such as: ‘What are the effects of large quantitative analysis on our research?’; even the impact on disciplines such as History, Language and Literature, Archeology, among many others “ — Gustavo Riva

Some results in this area were greater acceptance of quantitative studies in historical research and successful historical simulations using Time Machine’s data graph and multidimensional representation mechanisms.

“We believe that with the right amount of data and the right methods we can use this data for historical simulations that can help us understand history in a new way.” — Gustavo Riva

Different knowledges, one cause

Thus, we realized how due to the complexity of the research areas involved in the Science and Technology Pillar, we sought a transdisciplinary approach to how we can access, understand and use all these different data sources.

“And once this data is shared, you can’t do it from a single perspective or a single area of knowledge. It seems to me that what Time Machine is doing is not necessarily saying what we will do with all this data and information, but giving the possibility of creating a framework, the basis of how different communities will act and build new futures.”— Gustavo Nogueira

In the future we may discover new ways of seeing and experiencing this data. It becomes important to understand that such work today is open to these new possibilities over time. Access to this information allows constructions in different knowledge and interfaces from which we can only visualize their potential.

Global Time Machine

Although the project started in Europe and had first access to local data, it should be pointed out that the idea is not to create an Eurocentered work or to form a “single story”. That would be not only counterproductive but dangerous.

The idea is precisely the construction of multiple pasts that allow us multiple futures. And not bound to a single territory either. The very access to local data already allows the construction of a database of other territories, since Europe for many centuries, in its colonialist and imperialist politics, was the continent that captured and concentrated the intellectual and cultural production of several countries of the world.

“What strikes me as beautiful about Time Machine is that there is no goal to unify the history, but to put together and coexist the different versions and approaches of history. And that’s amazing, because it’s like we use the concept of a time machine as a multiverse of different times. “ — Gustavo Nogueira

The idea is to encourage Local Time Machines inside and outside Europe. Each in their timeline, whose joint mapping allows for the most comprehensive look at humanity and the globe. Gustavo and Andreas explain that one of the future phases of the project is precisely to reach this global level.

“By no means does it make sense for a project like this to exclude anyone who wants to contribute and can help us achieve that goal. A time machine is built piece by piece and that’s how we are developing this project. And history is connection, our goal is to achieve this more and more. “ — Andreas Maier

But what about big techs companies?

The business possibilities and possible interests for large corporations is also obvious. Although most organizations that are associated with the project consortium are research institutes, there is also the presence of small and medium enterprises. For Andreas and Gustavo, it is important that the focus at the moment is on stimulating the project so that it does not meet any single or monopolistic profit interest.

“We want to keep the project development as democratic as possible. Our principle is open source, broad and unrestricted access. Of course, the help and interest of large corporations in our project also encourages us to think about how we can create new economies.”— Andreas Maier

“We work in a way with an object that is history, which is public and is common to all and everyone. So it started as a public initiative, which of course attracted companies, as they are also part of society, but it is important that the project does not transform to suit private or individual interests. “ — Gustavo Riva

Thus, the first objective is to encourage all this knowledge and power to be in the hands of citizens and the public having access to this information generated and organized from a collective and common good: our cultural heritage.

The very idea of perceiving all that has been produced by past generations, this Big Data of the Past, as a Cultural Heritage, brings to the present a perception of the rich potential that these informations and learnings can offer us.

As part of a partnership between TORUS and Time Machine Organization, and seeking to broaden access to Time Machine Conference 2019 learnings, throughout September every Thursday, we will hold a live online meeting with the keynote speakers who are part of the conference schedule. Meetings will be in English and you can access them by registering here:

Register here for free for our online Conference warm-up sessions. Every Thursday, next session on September 19th.

by Victor Hugo Barreto
contributions and translation by
Rodrigo Turra
edition by
Gustavo Nogueira (Gust)

Torus Time Lab

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