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Communicating with the Future

It dawned on me over the weekend that Centauri Dreams will soon enter its fifth year of operation, the anniversary being in mid-August. On Sunday I walked the neighborhood, musing over the changes the site has seen and thinking back to its inception. I realized that the actual germ of the idea goes back not to 2004 but to 1986. In those days I was, among other things, writing wine and restaurant reviews, and I found myself in Winston-Salem NC, where I had been sent to review some hot new bistro or other. That night in my hotel room I watched a news item on Voyager, which had just encountered Uranus, and reflected about human futures.

The thinking went like this: Launched in 1977, the Voyagers could accomplish their prime mission easily within the lifetimes of those who sent them (their extended mission beyond the heliopause wasn’t much discussed back then). But I began to imagine truly long-haul missions that would be brought home not by the people who sent them but by the next generation, or perhaps the one after that. The idea of handing off ideas and technologies went into the Centauri Dreams book that I wrote almost two decades later, and the imperatives of long-term thinking continue to be a major thematic focus for the site that has evolved from it.

On Friday, I ran into a 1984 paper by Thomas Sebeok, cited on the Long Now Foundation’s site. Sebeok was writing about the problems of communicating with the future. Specifically, how do you let people for a period covering the next 10,000 years know that a nuclear waste site is dangerous? The author’s proposal was to divide up the 10,000 year period — approximately 300 human generations — into much shorter periods, perhaps three generations long. That way you can leave messages in modern languages that can be understood, supplementing them as necessary with pictorial information whose cultural background would be relatively familiar.

Sebeok goes on:

This message, however, would have to be supplemented by a metamessage — coded in the same combination of familiar verbal/averbal signs — incorporating a plea and a warning that the object-message at the site be renewed by whatever coding devices seem to be maximally efficient, roughly, 250 years since. That future object-message should, in turn, incorporate a similar metamessage for the generation 500 years from now to act comparably, and so on, and on, up to 10,000 years ahead.

It is the meta-message that keeps the concept alive. And so we have another instance of information being handed down, a particular ‘artifact’ that must be preserved and understood over hundreds of generations. Science fiction writers have toyed with the concept of information handoffs for a long time. You can see something of the concept in fine novels like Brian Aldiss’ Starship (originally published in Britain as Non-Stop), where the basic parameters of the mission are gradually lost and must be reacquired by the crew on a multi-generational voyage spanning thousands of years. Heinlein, of course, plays with this familiar trope, as have many writers, and we’ve seen the multi-generational starship being explored by groups such as The Ultimate Project today.

My hope for Centauri Dreams actually fits into this paradigm. I would like to think that I can keep this site active for a long time, promoting the spread of news about interstellar subjects as well as a philosophy of engagement and exploration of the cosmos that will resonate with like-minded people and perhaps win over some who are skeptical of the whole notion of going into space. But when I do stop working, I would like to hand Centauri Dreams off to someone who will keep it going. If I can indulge an extravagant notion, I would hope to see Centauri Dreams in some form survive to keep pushing these ideas through different successors until the first interstellar mission actually leaves the Solar System.

Sure, this sounds preposterous. Who knows when and if an interstellar mission — especially one with a human crew — will every fly? But even if it takes centuries, there should always be a core of people fascinated with the interstellar idea who continue to work on it. The premise of the Tau Zero Foundation is to build incrementally (ad astra incrementis), so that while none of us may live to see such a mission, the steps we take now will have played some small role in arriving at that outcome.

Image (above): An interstellar ramjet, one of the many concepts developed by 20th Century theorists to manage the daunting distances between the stars. How will these ideas change in our century? Credit: ITSF/Manchu.

Think of the familiar computer voice on Star Trek’s Enterprise. Somewhere in that circuitry is a digital history recording every possible scrap of human history. It would be a thrill to think that a future star mission might have in some tiny corner of its vast computer memory the history of the earliest days of the interstellar effort, and that the words assembled here might one day be read in such a setting, by some historian trying to follow the development of the idea and how it played long before.

Fanciful? Sure, and who’s to say that a nuclear-tipped civilization will survive long enough to build starships? I certainly don’t have the answer, but building toward an interstellar future demands optimism of the sort I hope these pages convey. We all try to get through the next 24 hours doing the best we can in the context of an envisioned future that will be better than today, carrying the conviction that hope is not a futile thing. Civilization is all about handing off knowledge, to the people around you and those who come after. Eventually that knowledge gets re-coded, like Sebeok’s constantly re-written warning, but the meta-message is the key. It tells us to keep renewing what we do to bring the idea home.

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  • Gregory Benford July 21, 2008, 11:29

    I served in the early 1990s on the panel looking at this problem, well addressed by Seboek. We concluded that the handoff of the meta-message was the weak link, of course. I dealt with our solution in my book Deep Time, which shows structures and describes encodings we thought might make it, with minimal need of translation, over the 10 millennia. The good news is that instead of new languages, the next 10,000 years will face language evolution and sidewise development (pidgins, etc) — because there’s no new place to isolate a culture, allowing the centuries necessary to make a new language. Even interplanetary colonies probably would have enough contact with Earth to stay in the language pool.

  • Administrator July 21, 2008, 14:27

    It’s interesting to speculate on language development as interplanetary colonies begin to spread. I think you’re right, Gregory, that contact with Earth would minimize language change. What would force true differentiation would be a combination of isolation and political breakdown, as in the collapsing Roman Empire, where Latin gradually morphed into a bewildering variety of continental languages, each taking its own course and being supplemented by local circumstances and contact with other cultures. Thus English evolves out of Latin, various Germanic dialects that become Anglo-Saxon, and Anglo-Norman after the Conquest. That world, of course, labored without the kind of communications system we enjoy today.

  • Phil July 21, 2008, 18:01

    I have heard it said that the first human to live without dying of old age has already been born. Aubrey de Grey gave a talk at TED talking about his ideas (http://www.ted.com/index.php/speakers/aubrey_de_grey.html) on how this can be achieved. How would longer lifespans the evolutionary change in language? I know in my life time I have already seen vast changes in the language that I use. I have also learned a number of words in other languages that just do not translate into English (telos (Greek), nakama (Japanese)), as well as many field specific words that are used differently in the field as opposed to every day language (heat (Physics), interests (Hegelian Philosophy). If I lived for another 1000 year I wonder how much my language would have changed. If I read this post in 1000 years would I understand it? If not 1000 years, what about 10,000 years?

  • James M. Essig July 21, 2008, 19:40

    Hi Paul;

    I really enjoyed the above article.

    It occurred to me as being in line with the processes of rewriting and re-interpreting the message every 250 years or so that given the tremendous data storage density that we have at present, which will only get better, we might provide an excellent photograph of each word meaning for nouns and a good action photograph or series of photographs or short films describing the meaning of action verbs. Words that modify nouns and verbs could be depicted in photographs showing various versions of the nouns or verbs that correspond to the meaning of these modifiers.

    Regarding large scale launching of times capsules which could travel at around 12 to 20 km/second throughout the galaxy, such small densely information packed capsules could be launched several dozen to a large booster, wherein they would use gravity assists and high impulse small rocket pods similar to those that were developed for the “Brilliant Pebbles” concept of space based ICBM interceptors and kinetic energy kill vehicles under the Strategic Defense Initiative during the final years of the Cold War.

    I could see using hardware that we have currently available such a Russia’s low cost and reliable heavy lift boosters whereupon several dozen such micropods could be lofted into low Earth orbit to begin a flight path that would enable them to use various solar planets for gravity assists. This we could accomplish in just 5 to 10 years from the building and testing of the micro-rockets to the launch of the first boosters.

    I think that the high visibility that such a program would be an excellent means to galvanize public interest in manned interstellar travel as a more advanced and future technically challenging project.



  • andy July 21, 2008, 20:03

    They seriously renamed Non-Stop to Starship? Doesn’t that give the entire game away?

  • Administrator July 21, 2008, 20:36

    They seriously renamed Non-Stop to Starship? Doesn’t that give the entire game away?

    Indeed. Although I suppose opinions vary as to how early in the book the situation became apparent anyway. The original title was the right one.

    I like the two epigrams Aldiss used to introduce the book:

    “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

    “It is safer for a novelist to choose as his subject something he feels about than something he knows about.” — L. P. Hartley

  • Adam July 22, 2008, 4:59

    Thinking about my own perceptions and experience of the future is interesting. At age 10 I first read Usborne kids books about the Future and only a few things have turned out quite as “predicted”, and quite a few unpredicted things. For example, computer-controlled houses aren’t quite available to everyone though they’re becoming more expected. The Usborne prognosticators predicted more robots by now than what we currently see, but give them another ~10-15 years. They didn’t predict GPS and all the services now taken for granted in a mobile phone, though their satellite-radio “wristos” haven’t yet appeared except as impractical novelties. Intercontinental vacuum-tunnel maglev mass-transit is still waiting for room-temperature super-conductors. The space shuttle hasn’t revolutionised spaceflight, and SPS are still just paper-studies – tho I am hopeful of a Japanese or European demonstrator in a few years. OPECs don’t dominate the ocean, hydrogen planes are still a dream, and inertial laser fusion hasn’t yet replaced fossil fuels.

    But they didn’t forsee quantum computers, nanotechnology, carbon nanotubes, and foreseeable life-extension.

    And my experience of the Future? My first computer was a VIC-20 in 1983, replaced eventually by a 500 K RAM machine c.1988, a 2 MB laptop c.1993 and ever more ridiculous desk-top super-computers-on-a-desk ever since. Just looking in a technology catalogue there are 4 GB RAM machines with 320 GB drives for ~ $AU 1500, and terabyte storage on the shelf for a couple of hundred.

    My first mobile phone was a heavy monster in 1995 which kept a charge for ~ 2 hours or so. Now I’m happily plugging in my mini-wonder every few days. I fully expect VR capable G4 (or more) cell-phones with more smarts than that new laptop in the next ~ 5 years. Not long after I expect natural language AI in my phone, with display shone directly into my eyes, and direct neural hookup for some applications.

    Where is it headed? Can we imagine a future much like our own with just more gadgets or something more fundamental changing about our relationship with our technology? With Magic-Mirrors everywhere, with increasingly VR oriented existences, will we remain us?

    Can we communicate with humans 10,000 years from now? Can we even communicate with them 100 years from now?

  • Adam July 22, 2008, 5:00

    oops… I meant OTECs not OPECs, tho it’s arguable the statement is true anyway :-(

  • kurt9 July 22, 2008, 18:48

    The best way to communicate with the future is to cure aging so that we can actually live into the future.

  • James M. Essig July 22, 2008, 21:41

    Hi Folks;

    Perhaps another method of communicating with the future would be to build some large mass drivers in orbit around our sun wherein the mass drivers would be able to launch time capsuls, or should I say spatial time capsuls, out in all directions from our solar system at velocities almost equal to C. These capsuls could travel for billions if not trillions of years or more and might reach locations so far from their point of origin such that the recessional velocity of such capsuls from Earth would exceed C by several orders of magnitude as a result of the expansion of space time.

    Another possibility, which is much more down to Earth would be to launch such embryo pods along with self assembly mechanisms required to develope equipment to raise and nurture the resulting infants to mature adulthood whereby the pods would be accellerated to almost the speed of light by very long barreled electromagnetic mass drivers. The mass of the pods could be as small as a kilogram or less and perhaps include electrodynamic shielding to protect the contents from cosmic radiation. The probes could be launched in all manner of directions from solar orbit and could be optionally accellerated to very high gamma factors so that relativistic time dilation for the probes could result in a longer shelf life as they spead through space.

    The probes could have a sensing feature designed to allow them to detect habitable terrestrial planets, whereupon detection of such, the probes would deploy an electrodynamic breaking mechanism to slow the probes down in order to activate a landing sequence to safely reach the surface of such planets. The cool thing about this approach is that, as the probes traveling through space at almost C reach the edge of the observable universe with respect to their launch points, the probes would reach a distance such that their recessional velocity with respect to their launch origin, such as planet Earth, would become superluminal due to the expansion of space time. It is possible that we might populate our observable universe and perhaps locations far removed from our currently observable universe with humanity. This would be a great pro-life accomplishment.



  • Carlos July 24, 2008, 12:20

    Perhaps the problem is not how to communicate with them in 10.000 years, if not, how to make it secret, and how many people will try to destroy our message to be sure the history received in 9.999 years will be the same as they will tell.

    A big example. The Holly Bible with the Nicea Council, the paralelism in the “life” of Jesus as seen in Horus, Mithra, Krisna, Buda… and how the Cristian Authorities make unavailable for all us other version than the Nicea Council Holy Bible.

    The question is, could we make another NagHammadi? Could we evit that the poor persons that will found our message don’t destroy a part of it thinkinf it was not of value? ;-)

  • ljk July 27, 2008, 21:54

    Some relevant links on this subject.

    Part One of Gregory Benford’s Deep Time here:


    The appropriately named Rosetta comet mission carries a
    disc with over one thousand human languages on it. Assuming
    it is ever found again and the disc can be read, it may be one
    of the few sources left for many languages.


    This is part of the Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Project:


  • Kurogawa July 31, 2008, 7:49

    Waw, what a beautiful article. Isn’t this why we all love technology, space and all the rest? – to try and see into the future and admire it’s possibilities. To help it come to fruition be it even conceptually.

    I find it fantastic to see the commonality between this article and the feelings writers have had since at least the Ancient Greek times if not since currently lost texts or even orally told stories, all through our history, going through the Roman chroniclers, the middle ages and most novelists even. People have always written not only to others but to the future to. It is interesting to see how we have evolved as a culture to try to write to further and further into the future, as we have gradually understood the complex processes that guide us all. Culture, time, civilization, wars, language, even archeology is extremely important in understanding our current concept of time.

    To think that the Romans could envision an eternal Rome seems to us ridiculous today, and this kind of article recognizes this fact to the core, though we constantly forget about it in our day to day lives. I guess it’s this culture itself that dooms a civilization to death, and that when all live their lives acknowledging this vast change which will sweep across us, then there will be no more conflict to radically change anything and evolution would be way more smoother bypassing all those frightful hiccups.

    Any takers for universal quality education saving civilization and humanity?