What can Sci-fi tell us about Archaeology’s Grand Challenges?


How do Sci-fi movies tell us about the future of cultural resource management archaeology?Usually the Huffington Post is full of irrelevant, speculative fluff pieces, but one of their recent articles actually caught my attention. A senior astronomer at SETI, Seth Shostak, asked “Could this be Humanity’s Last Century?

He wasn’t talking about our extinction but, rather, our evolution. He raised several valid questions about the future of the human race and how it will change because of technological and environmental realities. Basically, we will survive but not in our current state. Technology and necessity may lead to speciation that will change Homo sapiens as it is today. His article reminded me of three killer Scifi movies I’ve seen many times: Gattaca, Elysium, and Bicentennial Man.

My submission for the 2016 Blogging Carnival hosted by Doug’s Archaeology discusses how Shostak’s article is relevant to three major Grand Challenges for the future of archaeology as well as those three Sci-Fi movies. How are Sci-Fi movies related to space exploration and archaeology? Read on:

Here’s how Shostak’s article is related to the movies Gattaca, Elysium, and Bicentennial Man:

1) We will start “improving” our DNA through science— Shostak explains that our evolution will no longer be based on responses to changes in the natural environment. We will actually start changing our DNA through science.

The 1997 movie “Gattaca” shows us how far “ordinary” humans will go to achieve their dreams in a world where one’s DNA is the only proof necessary for success. The movie is set in a noir world in the not-too-distant future where parents regularly “enhance their children” by making modifications to their DNA before conception. The “best” of each parent’s DNA is combined in a laboratory in an attempt to create the ideal human being. People conceived the natural way are considered second-class citizens suitable only for serving the needs of these boutique people.

Ethan Hawke, however, refuses to go with the status quo. Through a genius system of deception, he is able to qualify to become an astronaut for the Gattaca Corporation and fulfill his dream of traveling into space. As someone who still dreams of becoming an astronaut, I can see why Ethan’s character would go through all the trouble.

What makes this movie so disturbing is the fact that this is already possible. Scientists are already whispering about how they’ve identified gifted genes while legislatures around the globe are busy drafting legislation making human DNA modifications illegal… for now.

How much money do you want to bet that someone or some company that is above the law will find a way around creating boutique people? It’s only a matter of time.

2) We will outgrow our planet— Shostak says, at the rate we’re going, we will mine out all our resources far faster than the environment will collapse. This will force us to start harvesting space. Our world is already getting pretty dirty and crowded. Most of the primo copper, zinc, platinum, gold, and other mineral deposits have already been mined out. Plus, the climate is making it hotter than the Eocene, which was an epoch where there weren’t even human beings or polar ice. Before our planet is a total smoldering slum, we will probably start colonizing space by building space stations where a select group of humans will live indefinitely. We’ll probably move on after we master that.

NASA’s program for colonizing Mars involves launching robots and supplies into space where an interplanetary spaceship will be built for the mission. If we build one spaceship factory, why not keep building more spaceships and space stations, especially if we locate an asteroid of gold or minerals on the Lanthanide sequence? A single asteroid with high-grade rare-earth minerals is worth the cost of creating an entire space program just to mine that one asteroid.

What if these robots could also build a space station where we could completely control the atmosphere and maintain a clean, pristine environment for humans and other Earth organisms? That’s the subject of the movie “Elysium”. In Elysium, humanity has long outgrown its digs on the Blue Planet by 2154. Rich people live in an orbiting space station and only use the planet Earth as a resource trough. The Earth’s poor are left to flounder in polluted slums. These plebeians are the workers who make all the stuff necessary to keep the orbiting elites alive.

In this dystopian world, failure to comply with the needs of the rich folks is dealt with harshly. Advanced robots and constant surveillance keeps the poor in check and constantly oppressed. Of course, one man refuses to comply. Matt Damon finds a way to bring down the man by traveling to Elysium—the orbiting paradise of the rich—and destroying the computer programs that prevent poor earthlings from enjoying all the advanced technology of the space station.

Even though I’m a Matt Damon fanboy, what makes this movie so compelling is the fact that NASA and other groups are already planning on building space-based construction facilities so they can travel throughout the Solar System. We are already scanning the asteroid belt for lucrative mining opportunities and are planning on using Mars as a place where we can process minerals from the asteroid belt into resources that can be sent on to Earth for final processing. Also, Virgin Galactic is starting space tours in the near future. A ticket costs $250,000 and 700 people have already bought one. Looks like space travel for the 1% is already here.

One could say living in space is already a luxury of the elite. The International Space Station has already been continuously occupied for over 15 years, but only a very, very select population has been able to travel up there. ISS occupants are not bent on keeping us down to serve their objectives, but they are proof that humans can live in space for months at a time. All we need is a rotating space station along the lines as the one in “2001: A Space Odyssey” where we can grow plants and keep pets. Whether it’s building space-based construction facilities or vacation homes for the wealthy, humans will be living in space sooner than you think.

3) All of this stuff will be facilitated by AI— Evidentially, a microprocessor that could fit in your smartphone can process more data than the human brain. I’m convinced that my iPhone is smarter than I am so this is wholly plausible. Artificial intelligence (AI) is already part of our everyday lives whether we like it or not. An explosion of AI machines and software is predicted for 2016. The question is not if the machines will go “Terminator” on us? The real questions are: Do these intelligent machines deserve the same rights as people and animals? And, what will happen to the humans who lose their livelihoods to these smart machines?

The movie “Bicentennial Man” tells us that, by 2005, every household will have a domestic robot who will do all the mundane tasks we don’t like. For example, laundry, the dishes, raising our kids…you know, mundane stuff. In Bicentennial Man, these robots will have Robin Williams’ personality, which means I will immediately have to download some mods before he can be used in my household (I’m on the fence of whether our AI robot servant should act like J.J. Walker from “Good Times” or Curly from “The Three Stooges”. I’ll keep you posted.)

Of course, Bicentennial Man raises questions about the rights of sentient robots, who should be considered a person, and what happens when our creations outlive us by centuries. It also forces us to ask: What happens when everyday work is done by robots? What will the working class do? And, will there be a time when a robot can have a human as a servant? (If I remember correctly, Bicentennial Man’s investments make “him” wealthy even though he has little use for money.) What if one of these bots became the richest “person” in the world?

Artificial intelligence poses an existential dilemma for humankind. Are we creating another form of life? If so, what is the relationship between human-generated organisms with AI and the rights of living beings? Are we willing to share our universe with synthetic life forms along the lines of “Star Trek: The Next Generation’ or is it going to be more like “Blade Runner”? Maybe I should ask my iPhone.

Three Grand Challenges for the Field of Archaeology

How do these three movies relate to what is happening now in archaeology? How does it address the three main dilemmas facing the field in the future? I’ll help you make some connections. Here we go:

1) We have dug up too much stuff?— The world portrayed in Elysium is very similar to the current state of archaeological curation today. More archaeology has been conducted in the last 30 years than the previous 100 of the field, which has resulted in curation facilities overflowing with artifacts. Shelf after shelf of groundstone, debitage, broken glass, ceramic sherds, and human skeletons are literally weighing down our ability to do archaeology. State historic preservation offices (SHPOs) don’t have the resources to keep up and our legislators are not helping the matter. Several facilities have closed in recent years, the Illinois State Museum closure is perhaps the most infamous. Other states have curtailed collecting soil samples and other bulk materials. I do not know of a single place where the state facility has actually expanded (please correct me if I’m wrong).

In addition to the rapidly shrinking spaces for us to store artifacts, the state of digital data is even more atrocious. Most CRM companies are hobbling along with a room of rickety servers where the wealth of all the company’s knowledge is “stored”. This doesn’t mention the storage units full of floppy disks, celluloid film rolls, or paper documents that are gathering mold across the country. Very little of the earliest CRM data has been migrated into digital format and almost no effort has been put forth by the states to try and curate this data.

I don’t think the condition of our curatorial facilities are as filthy as the world in Elysium but it is definitely bad and getting worse. Unlike Elysium, we can’t (yet) blast all this stuff into orbit and keep building storage facilities up there. We only have one world in which we live so we’ve got to do the best we can to make things amiable for the future. I see two plausible solutions: Deaccessioning and cloud-based data storage.

The Dirty D-Word

Have you ever been on a non-collection survey where shovel probes were excavated? What did you do with the artifacts you found? Chances are you photographed them with a digital camera, took a lot of notes, and reburied the items in a plastic bag back in the shovel probe where you found them. The idea is they would be recovered during data recovery or testing when a collections permit had been issued. Well, what if that never happens?

Or, what happens when you DO get a permit to collect all those invaluable flakes? They go back to your company where you analyze them to the nth-degree and turn them over to the state for curation, right. Have you ever seen an old CRM report where the analysis was, how do I put this,…lacking? Did you drive over to the State Museum, pull the boxes of artifacts associated with those sites and re-do their shoddy analysis? I’m waiting…..

You didn’t re-analyze those collections because, unless you are a graduate student, there was no money for that kind of work. There is a lot more we can do with what we’ve already excavated but we almost never re-visit any of the stuff we’ve dug up which opens us up to the common claim that those collections are never used. This leaves all the data we’ve collected in total jeopardy.

Deaccessioning is basically a curse word in archaeology. The idea that you would throw away collections is almost unthinkable. There is no method to get rid of artifacts in the NHPA or NEPA because that defeats the whole idea behind historic preservation. We are working to preserve stuff not throw it away. In the case of archaeology, the stuff we collected has already been discarded once. We’d be crazy to destroy our backs just to throw the stuff away AGAIN! But, we have to do something to make room for future discoveries because it’s not like states are building us more curatorial facilities.

It makes some of us sick to think about this but companies, universities, and state agencies are already thinking about ways they can reduce the size of the archaeological collections that result from archaeological investigations. The Sandpoint Project in northern Idaho is one example of how CRMers dealt with the size of their collection before curation. Understanding the best data would come from near 100% collection, they created a deaccessioning strategy in advance as a means of reducing the total assemblage after it was collected. This allowed them to study almost the entire sample while only sending a portion of the assemblage to the state facility.

This is not a perfect idea but it is one example of where we’re headed. The Sandpoint program was developed based on the unstated operating procedures of other CRM companies that will remain nameless. Crafting a deaccessioning program in advance is one way of doing good archaeology while planning for the future.

The Big Problem of Big D

Big data is part of all aspects of science. Archaeology is no exception. In the last few decades archaeologists have been slow to address the rapidly accumulating digital data we’ve collected. This will be a huge problem in the future now that many companies are switching to digital site recording systems.

As I mentioned before, curating all this data is a major conundrum for archaeology. If we are not doing justice to the artifacts, we’re definitely not doing the right thing for all the other data we’ve collected. Furthermore, this data has been collected over decades using a number of different software types, computers, digital cameras, and other recordation devices.

The Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR) is one of the only projects outside the SHPO offices of our country that is trying to tackle all of this digital data. For a fee, archaeologists working for universities or the private sector can upload the bulk of their digital data to a cloud-based system where it will be migrated across an ever-changing software landscape. Society for American Archaeology student members can upload a small amount of data (30mb) for free whereas it will cost a nominal fee for CRM companies and other professionals.

tDAR allows you to upload digital photos, a number of different document file types (PDF, DOC, DOCx, ect.), and GIS metadata. Unfortunately, you cannot upload video or audio files. You can make your files readily available or private, which allows you to keep site locational information confidential.

One major hurdle for this system is convincing other archaeologists to by in. In order for the prices to stay low, this system benefits from a large number of customers willing to pay the digital curation fees. Companies and grant-funded projects will also have to add another line item to their budgets which our clients may or may not be willing to pay for.

Finally, databases like tDAR open archaeological determinations up for scrutiny. We can no longer rely purely on our own judgment to assess sites in a world where dozens of similar studies are readily available at the fingertips of those who have the skills to properly crunch this data. Also, the expansion of databases like tDAR provide incentive for CRM companies to do “armchair archaeology” (i.e. only survey places where they are most likely to find sites). Predictive modeling is already a “thing” in archaeology. Some government agencies and clients are more willing to pay a single GIS analyst to predict site locations as a substitute for doing an archaeological survey. This is a good thing in some ways because it makes boots-on-the-ground surveys much more effective, but it prevents us from finding new, previously unheard of site types in places where we’ve never explored. Big Data thrives on existing data but new, unexpected finds are outliers that may be brushed off, considered suspect, or simply ignored.

Right now, the status of our willy-nilly digital storage systems is similar to the rustic conditions of the Earthlings in Elysium. These random server closets are doing a disservice to the field of archaeology and they are costing CRM companies lots of money. Millions of gigabytes of data are being stored in rickety servers at CRM companies across the country. This information is doing none of us any good. It is most useful when shared. Cloud-based storage systems like tDAR are one way of eliminating our current system in favor of one that does more justice to the field.

2) Monkeying with the DNA of archaeologists— What is an archaeologist? How do we define ourselves? What is it that we do again?

In the old days (c. 1880) you could tell who the archaeologists were. They were the racist European and American guys who paid lowly Egyptian and Greek peasants to dig up their ancestor’s tombs. The goal was to loot sites for their gold and artifacts to fill museums. We learned about the past by listening to these professionals who told us what we could know about the past and what wasn’t necessary to know.

This stereotype was pretty much the way things were until the Great Depression. All of a sudden these white guys were getting paid by the government to keep poor Americans employed by digging up sites. This was the dawn of the cultural resources industry. From its conception, CRM paid down and out Euroamerican, African American and “diggers” of other races to do the labor while college-educated archaeologists sorted out the details and argued about whose theory was most correct.

Sound familiar? That’s probably because we really haven’t gone much further than the Depression-Era. A small group of well-educated CRMers with experience depend on a much larger cadre of aspiring archaeological technicians and volunteers to do the physical work of finding, documenting, and exploring archaeological sites. This system has forced us to create a definition of what constitutes an archaeologist (HINT: According to the CRM industry, an archaeologist fits the Secretary of Interior’s Standard for Archaeology. This suggest archaeological technicians aren’t archaeologists, right?)

At the same time, our push to include local communities in the archaeological process has forced us to create a new identity for archaeology. You can come out to a public archaeology project and be an archaeologist for a day. Or, you can participate in the many avocational archaeology clubs across the country and do “archaeology” under their auspices; however, real archaeologists don’t consider avocationals at their same level. I mean, would you consider the folks on “American Diggers” or the members of the privy digging clubs around the country actual archaeologists?

Cultural resource management has also forced us to reevaluate this definition on other levels as well. Is a principal investigator an archaeologist if she has an MBA and hasn’t dug since field school? Are GIS specialists with a background in archaeology considered archaeologists? What about field techs that meet the Sec. of Interior’s Standards or the day laborers who sometimes find themselves digging at archaeological sites?

The modern state of archaeology has changed the DNA of what has traditionally been considered an archaeologist. Just like in the movie Gattaca, only those with a graduate degree and a decade of experience are considered real archaeologists even though this means they do not actually do what the world considers archaeology (i.e. digging with a trowel in the outdoors).

In some cases this is for the better. The increased number of women and minorities in our industry is an excellent thing. We have much further to go. The expansion of archaeologists with MBAs and law degrees has both benefits and drawbacks. Public archaeology that engages descendant communities is also a good thing, but, these descendants will have to get an Anthro degree at the Jedi Temple in order to be considered part of the “Royal Fellowship of the Trowel”. This places formal academic training over traditional ways of knowing.

Cultural resource management has completely changed the archaeologist’s DNA. CRMers are both capitalists as well as skilled researchers. We are trained to embrace the business side while keeping our feet grounded in the intellectual endeavor. Unfortunately, this has forced field techs into a state of second-class citizenship along the lines of the early twentieth century diggers who found King Tut’s tomb. Do we remember any of the diggers who found King Tut? Do we ever remember who exactly is doing all this archaeology? If we use CRM as a model, it would seem like only the folks with grad degrees who don’t actually do the digging but bring in the money are the only ones who are truly archaeologists.

We have changed our DNA. It is hard to know exactly who we are anymore.

3) Are we going to lose our jobs to DigBots?— When I first started out in CRM, I used to pretend I was a robot like Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” A being who felt no pain. Who absorbed data like a sponge and never forgot a thing. I used to wish I could dig shovel probes at the same pace all day, in all conditions, anywhere, and any time. Now I wonder if there will even be field techs when my children are my age.

The archaeological use of backhoes was the first step in eliminating the need for field techs. Whereas the uppermost strata of huge areas used to be removed by hand, backhoe stripping units and trenches are a central technique used to find sites. Trenches are like long excavation units that can find buried cultural strata in a matter of minutes, a chore that would have taken hours or day to find by hand. Once they’re discovered in a trench profile, that same backhoe can change buckets and strip off the “overburden” to find the “significant” stratum. All you need these days is a few techs to face the trench walls, watch the backhoe dig trenches, holler when/if a skeleton is found, and know enough about geomorphology to identify potentially artifact-bearing strata. We only need to call in a field tech brigade when it’s time for data recovery.

The backhoe remains the best way to find sites, although GIS modeling, ground-penetrating radar (GPR), and resistivity measurements are useful as well. Why pull out the backhoe if you can see the site from space or through the dirt?

It’s easy to argue that these technologies have eliminated hundreds of field tech jobs that could have led to higher ranks in the Archaeology Status Ladder. One could also argue that these advances have actually created jobs for archaeologists. But, what’s going to happen when somebody hooks up an AI device to a backhoe or GIS program and asks it to find the sites for us? Bicentennial Man features a hominoid-looking AI android but we don’t need humans to dig sites. We can probably design smarter machines that are better at digging, which will save the spinal columns and knees of hundreds of archaeologists in the future.

It’s not a question of whether or not AI machines will replace human excavators but when. Lyft is already creating a fleet of self-driving cars. It looks like cab drivers aren’t going to be necessary in the future of increased mobility that is upon us. There are numerous companies working on AI backhoes as we speak. We aren’t to electronic excavation yet, but we are rapidly closing in on this capability.

The expansion of AI into archaeology brings both opportunities and challenges. Will we be able to provide jobs for archaeological technicians whose primary bread and butter was digging shovel probes and excavation units when the machines can do that for us? What happens when AI-generated predictive models and infrared satellite surveys replace boots-on-the-ground archaeological surveys? Will an AI backhoe be considered an archaeologist? How will your graduate degree stand up against an intelligent robot that has access to every SHPO site record and report stored on tDAR? What does this mean for the Sec. of Interior’s Standards? Will a hominoid digbot be considered our equal? What happens when these machines get better than us at archaeology?

We are probably several decades out from seeing any of this happen but it’s worth considering before we find ourselves writing proposals against a company of AI-based machines and computers.

Is this the last century for cultural resource management archaeology as we know it?Is this the Last Century for the Archaeologist?

Back to Shoshak’s original question: Is this our last century? What will archaeology look like in 2116? Will there be any human archaeological technicians? What’s a college degree when a Google-based AI backhoe with a field lab on wheels can do 99% of the work?

As long as there are human beings, I believe there will be archaeologists. The job of anthropology is to make sense of our species and archaeology’s role is to dig though garbage and tell us about ourselves. That’s not something we are going to leave to a machine no matter how smart it is. Being irrational is part of being human. Keeping archaeology alive is definitely one of those types of irrational choices I can see us making.

However, there will definitely be big changes:

  • It’s likely that every archaeologist will have at least a PhD in 100 years, making the Sec. of Interior’s Standards outdated. The definition of who is and who is not an archaeologist will be deeply entrenched even while local communities and avocationals take a bigger role in excavating sites on their own terms. This will come in the sinister form of looting for television shows as much as it will as community-based participatory research public archaeology projects. The PhDs will advocate for their authority as the mode of data production shifts increase to interested publics and descendant communities.
  • Archaeology will definitely take advantage of AI-based remote sensing and excavation machines. We will take credit for what the machines discover because, frankly, the computers won’t care about our discoveries. They’ll be too busy pushing for civil rights. Plus, these digital techniques will save our clients money.
  • Archaeological repositories will remain at the breaking point, which will force us to take other means of addressing archaeological collections. Deaccessioning will be a blessing and a curse as reputable firms/researchers use deaccessioning programs to reduce how much they curate while “digging-for-dollars” outfits will use deaccessioning to blow off collecting important data. State facilities will probably also discard a lot of what we’ve collected because they will not be able to justify keeping these collections in the face of bean-counting legislators. Private curation facilities may arise up but it’s more likely facilities will go the way of the Illinois State Museum.
  • We will lose a lot of the digital data we’ve collected because archaeologists aren’t taking this problem seriously. This is sad.
  • Archaeological field technicians will probably not exist. If they’re around at all, they will be found volunteering on public archaeology projects in communities across the country or as members of avocational archaeology clubs. I’m sorry but I just don’t see that the management of CRM companies care enough about techs to try and save their jobs, especially when a tempting Volvo AI excavator can do the same job without the potential for an injury.

This is both an exciting and frightening time in archaeology. We have a lot of work to do. A lot of this work cannot simply be handed down to the next generation because, if we don’t play our cards right, there will not be a next generation of cultural resource management archaeologists. As an avid Sci-fi fan, I remain optimistic that we will overcome the worst problems our industry faces.

We are living in a fascinating time in cultural resource management archaeology but I believe the future will be very different than things are today. What do you think? Write a comment below or send me an email.

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