Episode 4 - Blurring the Lines (Simulation)
So, maybe the universe is right and we humans have been striving for the unachievable. Maybe you really can’t time travel to the past.
It would be a fair relief if truth be told but we’re not done dreaming.
We’re going to explore two quick ideas that would allow us to simulate very real time travel to the past (and the future).
What’s the best way to pretend we can do it?
We’ll examine whether indeed they end up really being simulations or are they real and what’s the difference to the user?
We will try and investigate in our little way what reality is.
What we find is that we can’t avoid blurring the lines between reality, alternative reality and the supernatural.
Psychoactive substances from the Natural World.
In the movie, Emerald Forest, a boy lost years before in the Brazilian jungle and adopted by a local tribe (the Invisible People) endures his rite of passage into adulthood.
He takes a green substance, harshly blown up his nose from a long pipe by a tribal elder, and identifies with his spirit animal, in his case an eagle.
He finds himself soaring above the jungle as the eagle to discover something that will help his situation and that of his distraught parents in New York. His trip is instant and he can perform wonderful physical feats.
From the tribes of South America like the Incas up to Meso or Central America, the Maya and the Aztecs to the North American tribes made familiar in the movies like the Hopi, Comanche and Apache.
The Americas are full of similar rituals and folklore, how various substances can act as a great broadening of the human spirit, a glimpse into a higher level of existence.
The notion that psychoactive plants could provoke an altered state of consciousness goes back 1000s of years. The plants and other substances used are called entheogens because they were used to communicate with divine powers.
The word, "Entheogen," comes from the ancient Greek words, "entheos," meaning "full of the god, inspired, possessed" and "genesthai," meaning "to come into being".
The Maya used a toxin secreted from the skin of a toad.
There are flowering plants like Datura ; Morning Glories, which contain seeds with different alkaloids of the LSD family ; Salvia, a psychoactive plant native to Mexico and The White-Flowered Water Lily (Nymphaea Ampla), which scholars compare to the Blue Lotus (Nymphaea Caerulea) used extensively in ancient Egypt.
Alcoholic beverages like Balaché, tree bark mixed with honey, and Pulque, the fermented sap of the Maguey plant
THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive ingredient found in Cannabis plants.
Hallucinogenic Mushrooms with psychoactive substances like psilocybin and psilocin.
Cactuses that contain psychoactive substances like Mescaline. Other cactuses like Peyote, Peruvian and Bolivian Torch Cactus and the San Pedro cactus. Contrary to popular belief, neither Tequila nor Mezcal contains mescaline. Tequila is made from the blue agave plant and sometimes Mezcal, like Pulque, can use the Maguey plant.
Whether it's taken by ingesting, smoking, drinking, eating or even enemas, these substances offered a wide-ranging menu of solutions for their people. Natural painkillers and sedatives, visions and mild trances. They promoted a peaceful state of thought, lack of attention to surroundings but an increased sensitivity to light and sound stimuli. They served as an anxiety relief to calm those about to be sacrificed, on occasion to such an extent that the victims were reported to have been so at ease when the dagger went in, even laughing, seemingly oblivious to the pain.
They were taken to enhance the quality of life, sexual activity, fertility, birth.
Enhance perception and emotions. Induce altered states.
They allowed you to identify with your spirit animal, assume its powers, enable communications with other inhabitants of the spirit world including their ancestors, who they believed were in a place that now saw everything clearly, even the future.
But there was another psychoactive plant that supposedly allowed you to see into the future.
And what’s more, it appears to obey the rules of time travel.
Ayahuasca, also known as yage, is a blend of two plants, the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis Caapi) and a shrub called Chacruna (Psychotria Viridis). It contains the hallucinogenic drug DMT (dimethyltryptamine).
Because it's still popular today, researchers have managed to collect a great deal of data from those who have used it. Many say they have been to a place that seemed to be more advanced than we are today, a place with new technology, where even the people looked different. They say they've been to the future.
But no-one reported travelling to the past.
Because the past has happened, its story is already recorded in our brains, it's the most likely thing to draw from in any psychedelic experience. But with Ayahuasca, the opposite is true.
So, if Ayahuasca obeys the rules of time travel, is our trip real or simulated?
In our concocting of the perfect time travel simulation, all these substances can not only induce experiences of the most original flavours, they can also act as a primer to more technological methods.
Give or take the warnings in the previous article in this series, virtual reality must play a part, at least initially.
VR graphics are as good as technology will allow, the ideas are exciting and compelling and here are even sensors and mechanisms designed to stimulate touch and smell.
It all contributes to a more realistic experience but not at any time can you truly interact with your environment on a level that would make the experience seamless.
For that, you need something to stimulate inertia, gravity, the feeling of contact with other humans, from fighting to the lightest touch on your skin, the things that make life what it is. Only with this does the brain start to confuse things enough for you to truly believe you are there.
Several devices have been used to attempt this, water tanks, dropping from a plane to achieve weightlessness for a few seconds, or rigged up to some frightening robotic assembly.
VR is not there yet, although a little girl previewing an early VR environment in the Trocadero Centre in London in the late 80s showed that when it does get there, it will be an addiction that few could refuse.
The little girl and a few other small people were given headsets. They were stood on a raised platform with a little bar they could keep themselves steady with. The programme started, and after one or two seconds of adapting to something new, something kids do very easily, their little faces lit up.
They laughed and screamed and they stayed lit up until the programme finished. Their headsets were removed and they experienced a moment of terrible truth as they found themselves back in the real world. It was like someone had decapitated and set fire to their favourite teddy bear and left it smouldering on their pillow. Two of the children re-joined their parents in tears and other parents reported a diminished fervour for the real world for several hours.
To achieve this effect for longer-term immersion into another world, you need to create the kind of environments and interactions that only come from huge amounts of data, capable of being transmitted faster than we can imagine today. Ready Player Once achieved a wonderful environment but it still wasn't real.
You still couldn't stroll through a wheat field, brush your hands over the wheat, smell the country or give your lover the lightest kiss. This is what we want. The sense of reality but in a different reality.
Moore's Law predicts that the number of transistors in a microchip (and therefore the overall power and speed of the computer) doubles every 2 years. The iPad we use today is more powerful than the biggest supercomputer in 1995. It's a great leap but that's over 20 years and the rate has now slowed to doubling every 3 years.
VR won't be up to it for a hundred years.
But the signs are clear.
This is more about what virtual reality might become.
So let's imagine a time in the future. 100 years from now. 2120.
Neural and body implants and sensors have become a part of everyday life, certainly for identification and communication and because humans are still humans, it comes with an obvious risk of misuse.
They have also been configured for VR, stimulating the brain, allowing the player's mind to truly believe they are somewhere else, able to do wonderful things. It will simulate all the senses and wonders of the real world, you can breathe mountain air, be hot, be cold, jump and swim and fight, love someone, feel pain.
It has to be real. Only then can it be considered a worthwhile simulation. For a simulation to be worthwhile, there has to be the possibility of confusing what's real and what's not.
Imagine the Star Trek Holodeck without the need to walk into an empty room or the Matrix without the growing-humans-as-a-commodity thing.
Gone are the mobility rigs and clunky goggles of 100 years ago, the shocks for impact and pain stimuli, the mucky medieval appendages for lovemaking.
Here in 2120, it is all about your brain telling you what to feel and do.
You're relaxed in a room hooked up to drips of nutrients, water and psychoactive ingredients and your drips and the programme combine to present illusions of touch, smell, taste, sight and sound and the illusion of antigravity, to fly and swim. You might have someone come into your room to exercise you regularly.
In our induced state, we're us, Mark II. We can go anyplace we choose. Be anything we want.
So, to answer our original question, even if time travel to the past became possible, would it be needed?
After all, we wouldn't be superheroes. We wouldn't be capable of amazing and magical things. Just us.
So, a more fundamental human question arises.
If our simulation is so real, how far can we blur the lines between simulation and reality?
And the answer is, completely.
Let’s say that you use your combination of drugs, implants and VR and you take yourself back to the 1700s, maybe somewhere in rural England. Naturally, it would have to be in the role of someone from the ruling classes. The dresses, the etiquette, the dances and the romance. A genteel world of Jane Austin chivalry and intrigue.
A time without the noise of today, the devices, the constant need to be reviewed and liked.
A time without the constant bother.
Notwithstanding the likelihood you might have to go to war, the prospect of terrible plumbing and questionable personal hygiene, you'd find it a blissfully peaceful existence.
You start with a big exhale as the sleazy moral squalor of modern life passes into your past, which is, of course, the future.
And there’s a thing, look, your past is already your future.
You enjoy hearing the birds in the trees and looking at the stars at night through crystal clear skies.
It might be so real, you dread the return to modern life and all its pressures and dangers. You stay there for a while and that becomes a long while, maybe years. You stop wondering if someone back in your own time will keep on looking after you as you take your trip.
You know it’s not the real 1700s but how long can your brain keep pretending?
The longer you’re there the more your brain will adapt to its new life.
After a while, your incredibly real environment, including all sensory aspects of your new time, starts to become more real. You spend less and less time thinking about 2120 as you absorb yourself in your new life.
But you don’t want to lose yourself. You need to remain grounded, know where you are, where you’re from, reality.
So maybe you tell the system to flash a green light in the corner of the screen for a couple of seconds every day. Something to remind you this isn’t real, something to ground you.
And then your brain starts doing some amazing things.
Natural human adaptation intervenes.
Just like it does in the real world, your brain protects you from things you can’t compute by shutting it away. Like a horrible incident as a child disappearing from active memory. So it has to produce a realistic reason for those things to be happening.
Other people in your 1700s world, now your friends, start telling you they are seeing a beautiful glowing green orb every day at the same time then it disappears.
They give it a name, even call it a God. You're not alone. There's an explanation. An explanation you are starting to believe over reality. After all, a supernatural appearance in a godly era or a time traveller from the future? Which makes more sense to you. Your brain is about to choose.
Initially, you know what this is of course but here’s where your brain starts to conjure, work its magic and weave its supernatural space.
Eventually, you see your alert light in the corner of the screen as they do. It becomes part of your perceived trip and you build it into your perceived existence.
It becomes a sign from God to you too. A wonderful thing has happened to the world and no-one knows what it is and why it came.
Just like in reality, some people get the sense something wonderful is about to happen. Others get the idea it’s the end of the world.
And then, one day, you will have to return to 2120. And you’ll probably have to do it kicking and screaming. Maybe your meds have run out. Maybe there’s a fault with the VR gear.
Either way, when you re-materialise in 2120, you’d be within your rights to truly believe that you have travelled to a place you used to dream about. You have travelled forward in time.
At that point, what is your future and what is your past?
Are you sure you know where you came from?
Teaser – Next Project
In the movie Inception, the characters went on trips into the dreams of their targets. In those trips, their timeline altered. They might spend days or weeks in their dream world but time would pass much more slowly back in the real world.
When they go deeper. Diving into further levels of dream state. Into the dream of someone who is in the dream, the timeline difference is stretched to breaking point.
When you're in your Jane Austin 1700s world, it's possible the same thing would happen?
And that’s for another time.
Thanks for taking this trip with us.
Until next time