While writing a short story today, I started thinking about an issue that I discovered last year. The story is set in the far future, where the dissemination of knowledge has changed so vastly that the idea of a printed page is absurd. I’ll be publishing it in the coming hours. But, as I was writing it, I started thinking about how much our culture and language will change in the next ten thousand or so years, let alone over the next hundred thousand years. That reminded me of an interesting thing I read last year – “Ten Thousand Years”.
Out in the New Mexico desert, stands a government building with a single task – to permanently store nuclear waste from the US’ various nuclear power plants, for at least the next ten thousand years. The date is so chosen because supposedly, thinking beyond that time frame is too mind-boggling to consider. It has nothing to do with Jeff Bezos’ Long Now Foundation, which is building a ten thousand year clock, thought it might as well, because both ideas are equally interesting and convoluted.
Now, one of the issues that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico is facing is that of language. Since the last ten thousand years, so much has changed in humanity, that the idea that the same language, the same symbols, and the same myths that protect us today will remain even then, is a non-sequitur. English is constantly fighting to be the language of choice while Spanish, French and Chinese are growing their user base. Symbols such as the skull-and-bones are adapted, first by real-life pirates and then by digital pirates to change their meaning completely, transforming something that indicates danger to something indicating excitement and even fun. Even myths change and long-loved black cats are suddenly considered evil and the number 13 bounces around as something lucky, then not.
Thus, assuming that a sign board at the gates of the WIPP, written in English and a battery of other languages, along with ten different types of warning symbols, should be enough to deter people from entering the premises, is foolish. This is one of the smaller issues that the WIPP is facing.
So what’s the solution? While I was pondering on the course of the story, I realized that the answer would have to be a mixture of ingenuity and technology. This is how I believe the problem can be solved –
We need to build a system that’s not just fault-tolerant and self-healing, but also intelligent enough to learn about it’s surroundings. While it may seem enough to place a settlement of scientists nearby who would constantly watch over the plant, recruit future employees and ensure the safety of the rest of the land, humans have a distinct habit of dying, moving away, letting emotions come in the way of logic and duty, and overall being bad protectors of the environment. So, the solution would be to build a system that can be initially supported by humans but must eventually stand on it’s own feet. This Gatekeeper would not just prevent people from walking into the compound, but also learn new languages, understand symbols and changing economics and governmental systems and ensure that no one disturbs the deathly sanctity of the place it protects. It would be able to access the Internet and learn of new technologies to replace it’s old ones. It would learn languages and add them to it’s database, essentially creating a bookmark of human history as it goes about it’s business of preventing nuclear waste from getting out of this burial place. This would have to be a highly fault tolerant system, able to quickly analyse any potential issue such as maintenance, earthquakes, failing parts and changing technologies in order to ensure its continued service. I think only if we are able to build such a powerful system can we promise ourselves that such a dangerous material can be protected over the next ten thousand years.
Or, we could just drop it into a volcano and hope that thing eats it all up.