The way information is stored and shared may now be forever changed thanks to a recent major five-dimensional (5D) digital data recording and retrieval announcement. Scientists from the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) have successfully demonstrated the longest-lasting and most versatile data storage method to date.
Data is stored on a small nanostructured glass disc made of fused quartz and written using ultra-fast femtosecond laser technology. Each disc holds 360TB (terabytes) of data for up to 13.8 billion years—roughly the current age of the universe—at 190°C (374°F) or near eternity at room temperature. The molecular structure of the discs is stable up to 1,000°C (1,832°F).
The term 5D refers to how the information is encoded in five dimensions—size, orientation, and three-dimensional position coordinates. The data is written in three layers of nanoscale dots five micrometers apart.
These nanostructures self-assemble in various polarizations and can be read by shining light through them and precisely measuring the results with an optical microscope and polarizing filter. This was first achieved experimentally in 2013 with a 300KB digital text file and has since been refined.
Efforts are already underway to preserve human cultural heritage using the method.
At the closing ceremony of the International Year of Light 2015 in Mexico, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was presented to UNESCO on a 5D disc by the ORC. Other historical documents, such as Newton’s Opticks, the Magna Carta, and the Kings James Bible have also already been stored on 5D discs for the future.
Many organizations, such as the Long Now Foundation, are aiming high for long-term preservation of human cultural heritage through initiatives like The Rosetta Project, “a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible digital library of human languages.” So far, they are using micro-etched nickel alloy discs with a 2,000 year life expectancy.
This isn’t the only new data preservation technique making headlines. Other options include DNA as a data storage medium, which offers unrivaled information density. But the ultra-longevity of 5D storage and the speed for reading and writing via laser is something new.
Is it now possible to record the entire collected histories of human civilization, without worrying about limited storage capacity or the medium decaying over time?
The implications are profound—hinting at the possibility of human knowledge outliving us.
According to Professor Peter Kazansky, from the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), “It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information and store it in space for future generations. This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilization: all we’ve learnt will not be forgotten.”
But not everybody is as optimistic about the future of information preservation.
Internet pioneer Vint Cerf recently warned of what he calls an impending “digital dark age,” highlighting vulnerabilities of today’s mechanisms for information storage and distribution.
“You and I are experiencing things like this. Old formats of documents that we’ve created or presentations may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed,” Cerf said. “And so what can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is.”
Without preserving the hardware, software, and instructions for accessing various types of information—ultimately, the information itself may become inaccessible later on.
To address this problem, Cerf proposes a “digital vellum,” a universally standardized X-ray snapshot of content, software and hardware; preserved to allow transfer and retrieval across machines and hardware as times and technologies change.
If adopted, such a framework could allow for future interaction with historical databases only capable of running on ancient or extinct architecture. Perhaps by aligning Cerf’s digital vellum with new capabilities in 5D data storage and long-term archival initiatives, we can secure our heritage for the remainder of human civilization—and beyond.
Image credit: Optoelectronics Research Centre/YouTube