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).
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 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
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.