The Ray Cat Solution

How do we communicate to beings 10,000 years into the future?

This was the question proposed to a panel of researchers coming from a variety of backgrounds, from climatology to communications and psychology to archeology. It is quite a beautiful design question, but it was proposed with a purpose by the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

Entrance of WIPP, courtesy of WIPP

The WIPP is a geological repository located in New Mexico. This means that 2,150 feet underground in one of the southern-most counties of New Mexico, the US Department of Energy is disposing of our radioactive waste leftover from the research and production of nuclear weapons. The facility is licensed to conduct these activities for the operational term of 10,000 years (we can note that the material will most likely be active for a longer period of time).

The “Landscape of Thorns” by Michael Brill and Safdar Abidi, courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories

The panel approached by the WIPP began their collaboration in the 1990s, and while there have been many worthwhile design propositions (such as a landscape of thorns the yet-to-be-official plan is to install a thirty-two 25-foot-tall granite pillars etched with symbols and warnings around the perimeter of the site. So far the design consists of warnings written in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, and Arabic, as well as the indigenous language of Navajo. The team has also considered the use of popular imagery such as Munch’s “The Scream.” Personally, this does not excite me. This proposal doesn’t quite have a design edge nor does it come off as an intelligent idea. In other words, I believe this solution is a lazy one.

The project works hard to blanket as many forms of communication as possible, but the fact of the matter is that these languages and symbols may not be relevant 10,000 years in the future. We need to consider the possibility that researchers will need to rediscover these languages and symbols in the way archeologists, linguists, and other scholars needed to reinterpret hieroglyphics. Then we must consider the scenario of future archeologists, linguists, researchers, even potential tourists mulling around on dangerous land trying to discern what is being communicated.

So let’s backtrack a bit. While the panel approached by the WIPP has been working on this since the 1990s, there was another collaboration that began in the 1981. The Human Interface Task Force was brought together under similar circumstances in the Dept. of Energy’s hope to open another repository, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, located in Nevada, which came to a full halt in 2011. This task force was proposed the same question; how do we communicate danger to beings 10,000 years into the future? And then this happened:

A duo of philosophers, one French and one Italian, came together to present the humorous and yet wildly intelligent Ray Cat Solution. Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri developed a two-part solution:

Step one, genetically modify cats whose coloring changes in the presence of radioactive material, and breed them.

Step two, spread the word. Rely on natural human instinct, our need to share, our need to tell stories, write songs, make art and utilize these inclinations to spread the not-so-tall-tale of the ray cats. This folklore, like many others, will persist and continue to be repeated. And one day 10,000 years in the future, on whatever is left of planet Earth, the ray cat will walk across the land, changing colors, and every being who knows the tale will drop what they’re doing and run.

This concept is intelligent; it is connective and adaptive. It may stem from advanced science but its smartness relies on age-old technology, the technology of humans. Yet the Ray Cats proposal was neglected, most likely due to its seeming absurdity. But here is the beauty in human technology: our word of mouth, our songwriting, our art making, our researching always find ways to dig up the extraordinary and present it to the world and spread it as far as possible

Bricobio plans to genetically modify a variety of species as they work their way up to modify a cat, courtesy of Bricobio

In 2014 a podcast was produced, a song was written, art was made, and the world knew again. Our modern communication systems housed on the internet simply sped up step two and elevated its success. People were talking, journalists were talking, scientists began talking. Not only has step two of the Ray Cat Solution found success, but step one may be on its way as well. Open source lab in Montreal, BricoBio, is now actively working on genetically engineering these ray cats. To compare with the current solution, the Ray Cat Solution allows flexibility and adaptability. Language and symbols may change, but as they do the songs will too and artwork will always be able to tell a story.

The panel plans to present their finalized solution to the government in 2028. So there is still time, and I will hold out hope. Maybe someday one of us will cross paths with a color-changing cat and run like hell.

7 Comments

  1. Hi Mariann, Thank you for your insightful piece. I think your analysis of the ray cat as an intelligent system is excellent. It is interesting to start to think what it means to communicate 10 000 years in the future and to speculate on how whomever might be in danger near the site would go about learning the clues left behind. Archeology backwards.

    The thought experiment seems to be so hypothetical it needs philosophers rather than designers to solve the issue at hand. I wonder why they chose the cat, and not some other creature or non-organic being. Maybe their train of thought has been that in the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt. We might not fully understand their symbols, but we understand the cat like figures they depict. Hence, for the system to work visual art becomes a necessity.

    cool!

  2. Its fair to say that I have been obsessed with the Ray Cat Solution ever since you presented this topic in class.

    With that said, for me, the interesting part of this project is what comes next (to the extent that the original premise of deciding on a cat becomes secondary). In that sense, how do we go about perpetuating a dogma/urban legend/myth for thousands of years? Some of the attempts done in 2014 begin tapping into that notion, but leave me wanting more.

    We know of oral traditions that have been successfully passed on such as in the cases of the aboriginal song lines in Australia. We even still used many ancient egyptian words and phases in many levantine countries today. So the question becomes less about the ray cat solution, and more about the intelligent design of a culture, that much like a virus, can use human subjects to spread, grow and prosper.

    Thank you for sharing this !

  3. What is so amazing to me is that this isn’t as outlandish as we might think! The world of science has advanced research in the field of genetics such that genetic markers can respond (turn on or off) to specific programmable conditions. These moon-ring-like felines are likely to populate the planet in our lifetime. Your consideration of evolutionary time and unpredictable changes in language make a very compelling case for this “smart” approach. Perhaps it could become a benchmark for other futuristic cautionary messages.

    Thank you for introducing us to the Ray Cat Solution!

  4. I love this concept of reverse engineering archeology and script. When I initially read your question “How do we communicate to beings 10,000 years into the future?”, I though the article was going to talk about communicating with aliens or non human forms in the future, and it reminded me of the movie “Arrival” where a linguistics professor tries to interpret the language of alien visitors. I think there’s a lot to be explored in language and I wonder why/how the decision was made to use a cat as a communication channel. Will there even still be cats in 10,000 years? How will we ensure their survival? Will there be human life then or should we also prepare for communicating with non human forms?
    It also reminded me of the movie “Cave of forgotten dreams” by Werner Herzog that looks into year of cave drawings and scripting in a cave of Southern France.
    Great example! Thank you for sharing!

  5. How absurd! I find it hilarious and yet extremely possible for a method like this to communicate something over centuries. The use of storytelling as form of communication has lasted thousands of years. Oral dictation of object (ray cat) and subject (danger/warning) can outlast the tool/technology (image or symbol).

  6. This is a great example to examine. It has it all: deep-time, storage, communication, interfaces, radioactive cats; the list goes on. I had come across this previously when Shannon had a week devoted to questions of long-term storage in her Bookshelves and Big Data class last semester.

    I remember our discussion turning to questions of how humans would communicate with humans that may have a completely different language or means of communicating that far in the future. After all (although we could apply some kind of Moore’s law thing here, but idk if it would apply the same way), thinking of 10,000 years in the past I really doubt that those early humans would have been able to effectively communicate with me; that said, cave paintings remain to this day and we don’t have trouble deciphering the basic meaning. however, if some cave person were trying to communicate immediate danger, we may miss it and just stand around deciphering while the Balrog rears its ugly head and eats us (this is a case where we were being warned off of a cave b/c of a monster).

  7. Ray cats – this makes me of two past examples of communicating into the far future.
    -petroglyphs of SW United States, by the Anasazi, “the ones who came before” as they are called by the Hopi, their meaning unknown to us.
    – the ancient wonder of the Giza pyramids, which are more deciphered – those towering, inscribed, and intricate repositories of early Egyptian civilization, where royalty was often entombed with a brood of cats as sacred companions. These cats (and also humans likewise entombed) were not meant to survive as individual creatures, much less establish a living breeding community like the Ray Cats.
    David Bowie inscribed on vinyl this predestination in Future Legend, the prologue to the album Diamond Dogs: “Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats.”
    Food for thought – and big feral cats.

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