Why is my cat green? Signalling danger to the future. With cats.

Imagine you’re 100 years in the future, exploring a deserted landscape with your trusty cat sidekick. Your cat suddenly turns green. What does it mean?

Hopefully, you’ll remember the song your grandma taught you as a kid. Your cat is green because you have stumbled across some nuclear waste. Time to scarper, and maybe reward your newly green cat with some fish.

Fortunately, back in the dystopian past, when burying toxic waste with a half-life of thousands of years seemed like a great idea, some scientists were worrying about how to signal its danger to you in the futuremini_kitty.

The “nuclear cat” idea came out of a discussion by nuclear scientists about nuclear semiotics:  How can we tell people in the future about the nuclear booby-traps we’ve left? What if we can’t guarantee how long signs can last, or that signs won’t change meaning over time? How should we “prevent intelligent creatures from intrusion into nuclear waste depositories“?

Two people (a writer and an academic) started from the kawaii assumption that we’ll still be hanging out with cats in the future. They suggested first genetically engineering moggies so their coats react to nuclear waste. Crucially, alongside these colour-changing kitties, the second part of the plan is to create folk tales & songs to be handed down the generations to remind people what it means when your cat goes green. Team Raycat even wrote a song :).

What’s this got to do with human-computer interaction? Well, it questions whether there are any innate methods of communication that computers can use as a short-cut. Can HCI really be natural or intuitive? If so, you wouldn’t have to spend time learning how to use software, or use precious memory resources to remember across sessions what things mean. You’d be more productive and less irritated by your technology.

One obvious way to make things intuitive is to build machines that can replicate human-human interaction. And yet, as you may know from personal experience, HHI is also flawed. What if your nuclear power plant interface misunderstands you?

Are there any other short-cuts, perhaps hard-wired by evolution? Loud noises can trigger flight instincts in people to signal danger, but over-using this method might desensitize people if there is no actual danger present, and would at least be irritating. What about colour? For example, does red mean “danger” in all instances? Across all cultures? Across all time? But colours change their meanings: The Victorians in the UK saw pink as a strong boy’s colour; while in contemporary Western culture pink has now morphed into the colour to indicate “girlie” stereotypes. Much technology depends on metaphor, which makes it vulnerable to meanings being lost over time. Just think about the old-school paper-based office metaphors in your computer – files, folders, even floppy disks! So perhaps, to keep the lines of communication open with our future selves, it’s back to the cat drawing-board :).


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