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We Have The Technology To Store Data For Eternity. Now What?

Design a guide anyone can decode, even a species that doesn’t exist yet.

Humans have been trying to preserve the essence of civilization at least since the 1970s, when Carl Sagan helped launch golden records containing the sounds and sights of Earth into deep space. The hope: to make contact with extraterrestrial life. More recently, projects like Google’s Knowledge Vault, the Svalbard Seed Vault, and the Human Document Project have worked to create permanent archives of Earth culture, too.

Now, scientists from University of Southampton have announced they’ve reached a milestone in the practical technology of storing data for the long haul–not just for thousands of years, but for billions.

In a presentation at the International Society for Optics and Photonics in San Francisco today, the Southhampton team will present a technology called 5D storage, which they’ve been working on since introducing it in 2013. The D stands for dimensions–a reference to a method of writing data in two extra dimensions–which make it an exceedingly small and efficient method of storing massive amounts of information.

The process has two key elements: a femtosecond laser, which pulses with super-short, super-fast intensities, and silica glass, a pure form of glass that’s also called fused quartz. Using the laser, a team led by Southhampton’s Dr. Jingyu Zhang was able to etch nano-scale structures into these super-pure discs of glass, each one containing minuscule dots that alter the way light passes through the glass, allowing them to record more information in a much smaller space than traditional data storage.

Each disc of silica glass could contain hundreds of terabytes of data, and most importantly, be tough enough to withstand incredible heat, cold, and environmental stress. In fact, by the authors’ estimates, these discs will have “virtually unlimited” lifetimes of around 13.8 billion years (or the age of the Universe). Theoretically, they would even outlast our own solar system, given that the sun is due to become a red giant within 5 billion years, by some estimates.

“Our storage is very durable and can be kept virtually in any place where it cannot be destroyed by a direct impact,” Professor Peter Kazansky told Co.Design. In other words, it could survive everything from fires to deep freezes, as long as it doesn’t get smashed by something heavy (it is, of course, still glass). The documents Kazansky and his collaborators have encoded for eternity so far include the King James Bible to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “which will survive the human race,” they write. It’s “a vital step towards an eternal archive.”

But what, exactly, would an “eternal archive” of human knowledge look like? It’s a question more and more scientists and policy-makers are grappling with, bolstered by both the creeping reality of a drastically altered planet and the explosion of data storage technology.

A few years ago, the science journalist Ed Yong profiled Ewan Birney and Nick Goldman at the European Bioinformatics Institute, who are working on storing data near-permanently by encoding it in DNA (a single gram of which can contain 700 terabytes of data). Fascinatingly, the duo are also considering how such an archive would function in the deep future. Goldman describes its architecture to Yong, explaining how a series of vaults would lead future humans through the process of decoding DNA, a scientific concept of which they may have zero knowledge, depending on how history unfolds. A visual manual to decoding DNA for a species that may not know what DNA is.

Though they’re dealing with a different type of storage, team from Southhampton is considering similar design questions raised by the idea of an “eternal archive.” As they write in their paper, a more immediate application for their 5D tech is in data centers–but thinking longer term, their technique could be used to communicate messages into the distant future. Like their peers, they envision creating a kind of “user guide” that would give future users a clue about how to read the glass discs. “We are currently trying to design these instructions, which include some pictures,” Kazansky writes.

Another major design challenge? Where to locate the archive. Last month in an interview with On The Media, Goldman speculated that a remote mountainside in Norway, or the Antarctic, might work “because there are a number of treaties” already protecting these regions that could include an archive. Kazansky, too, is mulling the issue–he says that a cave could work here on Earth, but that storing the discs on the Moon, or launching them into deep space a la Sagan, might be just as viable.

Of course, it’s very early days for such a project. But the advent of these radical data storage technologies is allowing us to ask an unprecedented question: Now that we have the ability to preserve everything humans have experienced and made, what should we preserve about our time here on Earth–and maybe more importantly, how should we preserve it?

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.



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