Food & Culture

Leaving Messages for Future Humans Will Be Like Trying to Communicate with Aliens

We take for granted that trying to communicate with alien species could be challenging, but what about with our own species 10,000 years in the future? This is the problem faced by agencies charged with safely disposing of nuclear waste. This waste stays dangerous to humans for thousands of years, so in order to protect future humans, there must be some way of telling them to avoid sites where nuclear waste is stored.

There is no guarantee that any of the languages, symbols, or cultural references we have today will make any sense to the people of the future. So how to make sure our warnings about the dangers of nuclear waste disposal sites will be heeded? In 1981, the U.S. Department of Energy convened a panel of experts for something called the Human Interference Task Force to study the problem and issue a report. They came up with various ideas for the 10,000-year communication task, all of which have drawbacks.

Why Language Won't Work

Language never stops changing. From generation to generation both the form and meanings of words shift in subtle ways that we hardly recognize while the changes are in progress but after just a few hundred years are significant enough to keep us from understanding. Chaucer's English, which is only 600 years old, can only be understood by people with special training. Linear A, a form of writing found on a tablet that is significantly less than 10,000 years old, has still not been deciphered.

The most useful approach to take with language on a marker to last 10,000 years into the future is extreme redundancy. The Rosetta Stone was deciphered because it had the same text in three different languages, one of which, Greek, was accessible to scholars. If the same message is written in many different languages and scripts, there is no guarantee that people of the future will know how to interpret them, but the chances of interpretation increase a little.

Why Symbols Won't Work

We do have some symbols that can transcend language, for example, numerals and mathematical symbols, and airport markers for customs, luggage, and restrooms. There are various international symbols for danger, and even a specific one for nuclear radiation. But they depend heavily on cultural conventions which may not exist even a century from now. Symbols must be interpreted within a context of what is already known or assumed, and we can't predict what the background context will be in the future. Maybe a skull and crossbones will look enticing, if it is interpreted as a marker for the tomb of an important person which may contain treasure.

Other ways to emphasize the idea of danger may backfire in a similar way. Having the area covered in an unnatural color or sharp spikes would work to call attention to it, and if humans of the future are anything like us, their curiosity will draw them toward what captures the attention.

A Manufactured Mythology?

In a report issued for the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation in 1984, semiotician Thomas Sebeok recommended a strategy to bridge the linguistic and cultural changes that could render a message meaningless in 10,000 years; he proposed that the warning should contain within it a "metamessage" advising that every 250 years it should be re-encoded into whatever the current communication strategies of the time were. But how to make sure people of the future would comply?

He thought the best chance of success was a created mythology, a folklore passed along through rituals and legends. It would be overseen by an "atomic priesthood" or group of scientists that knew the real dangers and would encourage the development of a deep cultural taboo and fear of dire consequences for non-compliance. Even if the reason for the atomic priesthood were to be forgotten and the legends and stories transform into something else, there was a chance a superstition and aura of danger would linger and offer some protection.

But this would still be no guarantee. We have no idea what the future will look like or how any messages we send will be interpreted. We can only go on the hunch that the people of the future will be, at least in some ways, like us.

For a deep exploration of humanity's future, check out "Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100" by Michio Kaku. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

100,000,000 Years From Now

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Written by Arika Okrent March 29, 2018