Digitally exploring 2,000 years of European history

Prof. Dr. Andreas Maier, Head of the Department of Computer Science 5 (Pattern Recognition Lab) at FAU (Image: Fotostudio Glasow)

Time machine project well on the way to becoming an FET flagship

The dream of travelling through time – whether to the future or to the past – is as old as mankind itself. Researchers at FAU are involved in a European research project which intends to make this dream come true – figuratively at least. The Time Machine Project is being led by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. In addition to FAU, another 174 universities, research institutes, industrial partners and small and medium-sized enterprises from 32 EU countries are involved. The aim of the project is to create a comprehensive digital archive for 2,000 years of European history, linking all documents, archaeological finds and other evidence from the past and making them accessible to the general public. The Time Machine Project has made it into the second selection round for being chosen as an FET flagship. FET flagships are outstanding research initiatives focussing on the major scientific, technical and social challenges of our times which are being provided with one billion euros in funding from the EU over a period of 10 years within the context of Horizon 2020 and beyond.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Maier, Department of Computer Science 5 (Pattern Recognition Lab) is one of 30 scientists from FAU and a member of the steering committee of the consortium supporting this extensive undertaking with their research. In our interview, he explains how their ‘time travel’ works, which technology is required and what significance the project has for Europe and its citizens.

Prof. Dr. Maier, the name ‘Time Machine Project’ immediately calls the science fiction novel by H.G. Wells to mind. How does the ‘time machine’ in this project actually work?

Unfortunately, unlike the characters in Wells’ novel, we are not actually able to travel through time. However, nowadays we do have technology like virtual and augmented reality, which allows us to take a quite different approach to the past. Imagine using smart glasses such as Google Glass or HoloLens to see what your surroundings looked like 100, 200 or even 2,000 years ago. You can manipulate time digitally and research past centuries. Our aim is to record, as far as possible, all known documents, artefacts and people and how they stand in relation to each other, both in terms of time and space. Once this has been done, the opportunities for actually using the data are nearly unlimited. These may cover such diverse areas as tourist information, experiencing significant events in European history at first hand, promoting citizen science or carrying out in-depth research into the humanities. We do not only want to digitise information, but also use innovative AI-based tools to create simulations and reconstructions which then deliver new knowledge about the past. It goes without saying that a mammoth project of this scale cannot be dealt with by one single institution. However, the proposed aim is so attractive that we have been able to attract more than 170 European partners, who give their full backing to the project.

What effect is the Time Machine Project expected to have on access to the history and culture of Europe and possibly even on our understanding of Europe?

We hope that our work will make it easier for people to access historical facts. Especially in times of historical revisionism and the apparent waning of the European ideal, it is important to shift the focus once more onto our common heritage and our shared history. The time machine is to be a European time machine, after all.

One important aspect of the project is that it is not only concerned with gathering data, but also focusses on ensuring that each observation is based on reliable information. Our data cannot simply be changed by anyone or everyone as is currently the case with, for example, Wikipedia, where people and places can quite simply be invented. We think that this means we will also be able to make a contribution to avoiding the spread of historical ‘fake news’.

Would it be possible to realise a digital archive of this nature on a global scale?

That is a very exciting idea and one we have kept in mind while developing our project. The solutions we have developed are decentralised and based on the structure and function of the internet, which was itself used throughout the globe after only a very short time. In a nutshell, our approach is to incorporate a ‘time slider’ into the internet.

Where did the idea for the project come from?

Like with a lot of good ideas, chance had a role to play. Frédéric Kaplan, head of the Digital Humanities Laboratory of EPFL, was invited to Vienna to discuss possible scientific collaborations. Without really knowing what to expect, he agreed to take part. This led to the initial idea of a ‘Venice Time Machine’, which led to a successful Horizon 2020 project. Thereafter, he launched a call for an FET flagship in digital humanities named ‘European Time Machine’ which was sent to all European Horizon 2020 projects, initially with the request to translate the English call into the relevant European languages. We responded by providing the German translation. Since then, FAU has been one of the driving forces behind the project.

And what is FAU responsible for?

The project is ideally suited to FAU’s organisational structure, as we are a full-spectrum university with strong partners in both humanities and engineering. This allows us to participate at all levels of the project, and we are able to contribute outstanding previous work from our research and teaching, for example in the Digital Humanities degree programme. Specifically, we are involved in drawing up the work plan for the next project phase. I am responsible for coordinating the pillar Science and Technology and my colleague Prof. Dr. Peter Bell for creating the German section of the time machine. Of course, we are not expected to do so all by ourselves, we are working closely with a number of other German partners, such as TU Dresden, where two positions are involved in creating the German time machine.

The Time Machine Project has made it through to the second selection round for the FET flagship. What does that mean for the project and what happens now?

We were of course very pleased to be chosen in the first round from more than 30 proposed projects. Only 17 consortia are left in the second round. By the end of the year, six of these will be chosen to complete a full proposal for an FET flagship. Each consortium is provided with one million euros in funding just for filing the proposal, so that the necessary preliminary work be done. We are in the middle of a very exciting and highly competitive selection process. You need to remember, of course, that the time machine is not necessarily one of the favourite projects, competing against robotics and the digitalisation of healthcare. However, I have confidence in our consortium and have to admit that the project itself is so exciting that every commitment is worthwhile even if we do not manage to bring in a FET Flagship.

More information:

Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Andreas Maier
Tel.: 00499131/85-27775

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