Talking to the future
Many countries in the world today are burning nuclear fuel to generate electricity. These nuclear reactors produce waste material which is radioactive and highly dangerous to humans and other life forms. Disposing of this waste in a responsible and safe way is important. However, these waste materials remain dangerous for thousands of years – up to 10,000 years. We don’t want anyone, even by mistake, to get curious and open one of those waste disposal boxes. Not now. Not in a thousand years.
How do you warn future generations living 10,000 years from now about this danger?
Can we draw “radioactive” symbol and write DANGER in big bold red letters? Will that be enough? But, what if no one can read our language and symbols in a thousand years?
Is there any way to reliably tell our future generations something simple like “Danger – don’t touch this”. Those future generations may not be talking our languages, or even be able to read our symbols. Or, they may not even be humans like us.
A recent article in Method lists several solutions suggested by government committees. The main one is oral transmission using stories and annual rituals around the site to warn of the danger there; another is to build a landscape of thorns and put warnings written in seven languages and even one bordering on ridiculous like breeding like cats which behave like Geiger counter.
I find it incredible that all these suggestions have an implicit assumption that the future generations, for whom the warnings are meant, will be dumb and less sophisticated than us – they need colour changing cats and a nuclear priesthood to keep them safe and away from nuclear dump sites.
It is important to note that the need for communicating to a future generation could also be to tell them about some life saving secret, like antibiotics or some important scientific knowledge like electricity, structure of atom etc.
Let us consider another scenario. Something more immediate: lets say you were blessed with a baby. You went through all the necessary check ups and immunizations for the initial couple of years. Then, your doctor informs you that you need to give your kid a booster dose of a certain immunization 15 years from now. How do you remind yourself of such a thing?
Can you set a reminder in your smartphone calendar – are you sure you will be using this phone after those many years?
Perhaps, you will consider setting a reminder in any of the online applications you trust (currently), say Gmail calendar or something. But, how can you be sure the application will be live for that long and you will be using them actively till then?
You cannot even rely on the traditional way of a making a note and sticking it on your desk. Again, is the life of your desk or the paper that long?
One can imagine the need for a similar reminder in case of a long term bank deposit or an insurance renewal. However, there are no fool-proof solution currently available.
There are some solutions like repeating the message to yourself every month or every year. But its too cumbersome and not fool proof (how will you know if the repetition is missed a couple of times?)
The problem of reliably sending a message to yourself or a future generation over a long period of time can arise in various situations. Unfortunately, with no good solution currently available.
Inability to communicate to future has been a real problem throughout history and it has already affected the human race. Although, it may seem incredulous, but human civilizations have lost significant amounts of knowledge over large periods of time. For instance, we don’t know much about metallurgic processes of Indus valley civilization although they produced very high quality work. Vedic literature mention Soma as a drink but the identity of the plant was gradually lost.
We don’t know exactly how the ancient Egyptians constructed the pyramids or ancient Britons managed to build the Stonehenge. The fact that we won’t be able to construct another using the technology of that time, tells us that the ancients knew something that we are missing.
Till recently, communication over large distances was also a problem. Sending a message half way around the world, which to us seems an everyday affair, was unreliable or downright impossible till a few centuries back. Historians have conjectured that the sizes to which different empires in different era grew, was determined by limits of efficient communication with all its far flung corners.
However, that problem was solved when our modern communication revolution happened. The telegraph, the telephone and now the Internet has made the whole world reachable at a cost and speed unimaginable earlier.
Perhaps a similar breakthrough is required for communicating over long period of time.