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Data Storage Media Technology

Billion Year Storage Media 204

Posted by samzenpus
from the built-to-last dept.
Thorfinn.au writes "Even though the data density of digital information storage has increased tremendously over the last few decades, the data longevity is limited to only a few decades. If we want to preserve anything about the human race which can outlast the human race itself, we require a data storage medium designed to last for 1 million to 1 billion years. In this paper a medium is investigated consisting of tungsten encapsulated by silicon nitride which, according to elevated temperature tests, will last for well over the suggested time."
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Billion Year Storage Media

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  • by nospam007 (722110) * on Monday October 14, 2013 @08:49AM (#45120503)

    But as we know, you can't trust atoms.
    They make up everything.

    • Is there a name for a joke that's so bad, it's good?

    • by JustOK (667959)

      How many atoms in a quark?

    • by Laxator2 (973549) on Monday October 14, 2013 @09:24AM (#45120837)

      The authors describe a medium that will hold information for 1million to 1 billion years, yet they publish their results on PAPER!
      Either they don't trust their own material will last as long as good old paper or they expect irrelevance to do its work faster than wear and tear.
      Otherwise, they would publish a "tungsten encapsulated by silicon nitride", not a "paper".

      • by Loughla (2531696)
        Couldn't we just etch everything into stone, then encapsulate it in concrete or other similarly hard medium, and put it into orbit around the moon? Wouldn't that last a while?
        • by Bigbutt (65939)

          Sure. We'll create a gigantic square block with a QR code on it so the aliens can scan it and immediately understand. :)

          [John]

        • by femtobyte (710429)

          Have you seen the surface of the moon? You know, the one pockmarked by all sizes of craters and pulverized to a fine dust? Space is a terrible place for long-term (billion-year) longevity of unprotected objects; anything you put there will end up ground to bits by micrometeorites in the long term, even in a rather hefty concrete capsule. Having a planetary atmosphere to take care of all but the biggest chunks of space debris is extremely useful; far better protection than quite a few meters of concrete.

          • by Gilmoure (18428)

            Wrap it in I earned set to orbit in Oort belt?

          • by cdrudge (68377)

            An atmosphere may provide some protection from some space-borne objects, but not all. But regardless of how much protection it provides, Earth itself would likely be it's own destructive force for anything kept on it. How do you protect and object from the destructive forces that have created mountain ranges, carved grand canyons? Super volcanoes, glacial ice ages, hurricanes, flooding...

            Keeping the object just physically safe over a billion years on Earth I think would be far harder than making sure that

            • You're pretty close to the real point - in a billion years, those fancy tablets would be subducted back into the mantle - geologists, feel free to correct the words, but the idea is right - by then, everything on the surface will be recycled back into the earth.
      • by bobbied (2522392)
        Yea, but the "Paper" can be photo copied right?
  • by gmack (197796) <{ten.erifrenni} {ta} {kcamg}> on Monday October 14, 2013 @08:51AM (#45120517) Homepage Journal

    That's nice and all but can we trust our data formats to stay static for that long? Having the data but being unable to open it seems rather useless to me.

    • Frequency analysis and non compressed formats

    • That's nice and all but can we trust our data formats to stay static for that long? Having the data but being unable to open it seems rather useless to me.

      If we've been able to decipher obscure hieroglyphs and number systems from dozens of long-dead civilizations, I'm sure that 1 billion years from now scholars will be able to solve the arcane puzzle of ASCII and the VFAT file system. The much tougher problem would be: Once they have all the words extracted from the files, figuring out what they mean.

      • by Rob Riggs (6418) on Monday October 14, 2013 @09:49AM (#45121077) Homepage Journal
        There is one key reason why we were able to decipher hieroglyphics. We had a cheat sheet [wikipedia.org] containing a language we understood. Unless we can provide something like that, it will be very difficult. Perhaps we could include a primer with the text.
        • That's one writing system out of dozens.

          • No. It's pretty much all of them. Those without, like the Cretan hieroglyphics and Linear A are still untranslated.
        • by Gilmoure (18428)

          You'd need an Omnilingual [gutenberg.org] (by H. Beam Piper).

        • There is one key reason why we were able to decipher hieroglyphics. We had a cheat sheet [wikipedia.org] containing a language we understood. Unless we can provide something like that, it will be very difficult. Perhaps we could include a primer with the text.

          Ideally, scientific text would be a good start. The numbers and the laws of physics won't change. Give them Pi and some well known equations and they should have our mathmatics system down. If they found a periodic table for example, they should be able to determine fairly easily that that is what it was and thus fill out all the appropriate descriptors. Similarly, diagrams and explainations of electric circuits, physics equations like Maxwell's, or even mechanical engineering texts should be easily recogni

          • by Rob Riggs (6418)
            What would it take to translate "Moby Dick" or "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" into such a language?
            • What would it take to translate "Moby Dick" or "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" into such a language?

              You wouldn't have another language. You'd just give them a bunch of science books to act as a rosetta stone since they know what they are saying in our language and they'd eventually figure out the rest from context.

        • Good idea! We can make the whole thing just a special feature to the movie Contact.

      • by ZahrGnosis (66741) on Monday October 14, 2013 @10:18AM (#45121289) Homepage

        We've been historically terrible at deciphering ancient languages without something to help link it to a current language (such as the Rosetta Stone).

        All this talk of data formats spanks of a very digital future, which I think we have a very hard time of predicting. The linked article is very binary... the grooves they explain can have "two or more" readable states, and their use of a QR code is interesting since it's an analog representation of an absurdly hard to decipher technology (without a key, as parent indicates should be the first thing). How would we encode data on these things? ASCII encoded English? Aliens would have to decode a language and then translate it. There's got to be something easier.

        At least the QR code is ultimately a 2D picture, though. I'd imagine any thorough storage over that period of time will have to start with something extremely basic. Sculptures or 2D visual instructions that clearly lay things out. I think you could probably describe a mathematical encoding mechanism visually, but a language would take some work. The Arecibo message [wikipedia.org] is somewhat famous for being a digital message that is notoriously difficult to interpret, and that's by people who would actually recognize some of the glyphs. The picture attached to the 1970s Pioneer vessels is higher resolution and easier to identify, and the audio/visual nature of the Voyager Golden Record is also interesting. But still the idea that these will be intelligently deciphered by themselves is tiny.

        It's impressive that they're building something to last... they're just going to have to spend a lot of time figuring out what to put on it. Should lead to some interesting conversations.

    • by wjcofkc (964165)
      While I am far from an expert in the field, there are ways of breaking down mathematics into extremely basic building blocks (visual) that could presumably be deciphered by any mathematically inclined sentient species and that once built up would provide the key\decoder for the rest of the data.
    • by TWiTfan (2887093)

      That's nice and all but can we trust our data formats to stay static for that long?

      Even if humanity survives a billion years from now, they would be so radically different from us that not only would they not speak the same language, they probably wouldn't even communicate in the same WAY (or maybe even EXIST in the same way). Anything preserved from our era would be an odd novelty to them at best.

      And if humanity doesn't survive, then there's going to be no one left to care AT ALL. To think otherwise is hopelessly arrogant.

      • by Jeng (926980)

        And if humanity doesn't survive, then there's going to be no one left to care AT ALL. To think otherwise is hopelessly arrogant.

        Yes, but if we are talking billions of years then a whole new sentient species could evolve on earth who may be able to eventually read the data. One billion years though may be a bit short for that outcome.

    • Just use an Office format, those will be around forever.

    • by ecotax (303198)

      That's nice and all but can we trust our data formats to stay static for that long?

      Just use Word 95 format. Everybody seems to be able to read that somehow, and there seems to be no way to get rid of it.

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      Well probably the first step would be to create a rosetta stone for them. Encrypt something that will probably be around for for a very long time in multiple languages. I would suggest three religious texts the bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita.
      Follow those by various texts on language, science, math, and history.
      Next I would document all the data formats used in the rest of the data.
      Then I would include things like all the patents and so forth.
      Then store copies of all the data in lots of places. Plac

    • by Darinbob (1142669)

      In a billion years you'll still be required to connect to a remote DRM server to unlock your content.

  • Data (Score:4, Insightful)

    by prefec2 (875483) on Monday October 14, 2013 @08:59AM (#45120585)

    Most of our data are totally uninteresting pieces of garbage. Think of it, a future species recovers an archive of present tweets and facebook comments. They will think that we died out because we were egocentric egoistic maniacs who do not care about their future and legacy. Furthermore, they will see it as direct evidence that we preserved nonsense about our pity lives in a super material, while other knowledge was not stored at all. But maybe, they just come up with the idea that the data must be somewhat scrambled, as it makes no sense at all.

    • Re:Data (Score:4, Insightful)

      by SigmundFloyd (994648) on Monday October 14, 2013 @09:18AM (#45120777)

      Think of it, a future species recovers an archive of present tweets and facebook comments. They will think that we died out because we were egocentric egoistic maniacs who do not care about their future and legacy.

      And they will likely be right.

    • Re:Data (Score:5, Interesting)

      by martyros (588782) on Monday October 14, 2013 @09:20AM (#45120801)

      Most of our data are totally uninteresting pieces of garbage. Think of it, a future species recovers an archive of present tweets and facebook comments.

      Said by someone who obviously has never done much looking at history. The fact that "uninteresting pieces of garbage", that either everyone knew and assumed or thought didn't need to be said, were *not* written down, makes it a lot harder to understand the context in which the things we *do* have were said. Having a handful of people's full FB / twitter records will be a treasure trove of information for 50th-century historians trying to figure out what life was actually like in the 20th century.

      • Re:Data (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Teancum (67324) <robert_horning@n ... t ['etz' in gap]> on Monday October 14, 2013 @10:14AM (#45121259) Homepage Journal

        Considering that archaeologists spend most of their time literally digging through garbage dumps, it is a funny choice of words to even say that "uninteresting garbage" is something that people in the future won't care about.

        Even if you take something like the Bible, which has been filtered through the hands of hundreds of generations of religious folks trying to make a philosophical point and to promote a certain viewpoint of history, there are still stories of incest, drug abuse, love poems, marital court rulings, genealogical records, dry legal codes, military order of battle charts, minutes of committee meetings, and of course battle reports and some epic tales thrown into the middle of all of that other stuff. I'm just suggesting that in the course of 10k-20k of written history those things which still survive tends to include a whole bunch of that "uninteresting garbage" even when it is heavily edited.

        What you are saying here is so true.

      • Doubt it. It would be akin (because of the vast separation in time) to our finding forty thousand versions of "Damn, Og just missed small deer. ... No, wait, he return. ... Damn, Og just missed small deer." Not a lot of info and of no real use (we have the deer remains at the site as well).

        PS: For the great majority of ancient, we *do not* have the equivalent of FaceBook posts to augment the vast reams of inventory, royal notices and laws. The peasant's lives are reconstructed from evidence, not le
        • by martyros (588782)

          It would be akin (because of the vast separation in time) to our finding forty thousand versions of "Damn, Og just missed small deer. ... No, wait, he return. ... Damn, Og just missed small deer."

          Your example contains "damn", which could help you track exposure to religion, attitudes towards swearing, and so on. The existence of "small deer" could help you track the change of population and determine exactly when a species became extinct / sacred / in high demand. Even when not mentioned, a historian migh

        • by Teancum (67324)

          PS: For the great majority of ancient, we *do not* have the equivalent of FaceBook posts to augment the vast reams of inventory, royal notices and laws. The peasant's lives are reconstructed from evidence, not learned from text.

          You obviously don't do much research on 19th Century historical events. There are indeed substantial amounts of written information from that time period where "peasants" were literate and left behind a considerable legacy. To name one particular historical record that IMHO is almost precisely like a bunch of Facebook posts that instead was from the 1860's is this diary of a private [wikisource.org] in the U.S. Army during the U.S. Civil War (he served in the 2nd California Infantry Regiment). He was not a great war lead

      • If you'd like to know how Europe was 1200 years ago then look no further than the middle east. (Woosh... That was the sound of my karma being nullified. )
    • Why caring about facebook, we have some libraries, wikipedia, mediawiki and other interesting stuff to store. Now if we did have some kind of wikipedia where we can store how to build everything needed from using our 10 fingers to build all the tools and industrial processes to be able to build a computer, that could also be of value to save...

    • by jonbryce (703250)

      I don't agree. The inane tweets about everyday life are exactly the sort of thing future historians will want to read. It will give them a much greater insight into what life was like than the stuff we find more interesting at the moment.

      • I don't agree. The inane tweets about everyday life are exactly the sort of thing future historians will want to read.

        Which makes it just like garbage. One of the most useful finds for an archeologist is an ancient garbage dump. Looking at what people toss out can reveal far more about how they actually lived than their writings or art.

    • The usual SciFi trope is that 'Maths is the Universal language', and data is just Maths. There are people investigating how to use incredibly simple encodings to build up meaningful messages which may be understood by advanced extraterrestrials. For example, CosmicOS is a 4-symbol lambda calculus which aims to do just this http://people.csail.mit.edu/paulfitz/cosmicos.shtml [mit.edu]

      There are even simpler encodings, like Binary Lambda Calculus http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binary_lambda_calculus [wikipedia.org] and the more-verbose b

      • by Kjella (173770)

        The usual SciFi trope is that 'Maths is the Universal language', and data is just Maths.

        Well, we've never tried deciphering a language that anyone has made a genuine effort to make it so. Math has some really simple patterns that make it easy to distinguish from noise like 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 or in binary
        000
        101 000
        10101 000
        101010101 000
        1010101010101 000
        101010101010101010101 000
        1010101010101010101010101 000
        From there I'd probably just repeat [x,y,pictogram of x*y bits] with silence to space them. I'd probably start with "illustrated math" to show like
        1 + 1 = 2
        . + . = ..
        2 + 1 = 3
        .. + . = ...
        I

      • by TheLink (130905)

        The usual SciFi trope is that 'Maths is the Universal language', and data is just Maths

        I suspect there's probably a trope that that's not true too ;)

        Can someone give me the math version of "I like chocolate!". Or "I love my wife"?

    • Accounts of trade exchanges, wrehouse contents etc. Generally boring unless you are writing an economics paper.
  • Wow! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 14, 2013 @09:14AM (#45120733)

    Wow, a slashdot article with a straight-up link to the paper. No multi page article with embedded flash ads, no 'science journalism' minced down through a chain of successively dumber news outlets, no PR bullshit. Just the paper.

    Submitter, I'm impressed.

    • Re:Wow! (Score:4, Funny)

      by GodfatherofSoul (174979) on Monday October 14, 2013 @12:17PM (#45122539)

      Wow, a Slashdot poster who reads the articles! No hyperbolic responses to the headlines. No uninformed, youthful arrogant criticisms. No misinterpretation of the summary that makes the whole post irrelevant.

      Poster, I'm impressed. Oh wait, you're an AC. FU!

  • by mlosh (18885) on Monday October 14, 2013 @09:37AM (#45120981)

    ... if much of the world's tungsten ore was laced with silicon nitride "contaminants". Alexandria all over again.

  • by FridayBob (619244) on Monday October 14, 2013 @09:42AM (#45121027) Homepage
    ... a high-speed object collides with it. Because on a billion-year timescale the universe is a shooting gallery and everything is a target.
    • The chances of any particular rock being destroyed by a meteorite within a billion years seem quite low.
  • by sir-gold (949031) on Monday October 14, 2013 @10:00AM (#45121179)

    Maybe its different when bonded to tungsten, but silicon nitride by itself is extremely brittle, almost as brittle as glass.

    Modern natural gas furnaces use silicone nitride hot surface igniters (glows red hot and ignites the gas). These igniters will shatter when dropped as little as 1 foot onto concrete.

  • All fine to have a storage medium that lasts a million years. How about the drive to read it?

    My wife did her thesis on the subject of long term data preservation.

    http://explorer.cyberstreet.com/CET4970H-Peterson-Thesis.pdf [cyberstreet.com]

    • by Cliff Stoll (242915) on Monday October 14, 2013 @11:09AM (#45121789) Homepage

      Excellent thesis and a most delightful dedication!

          A few salient points from this thesis, for the Slashdot crowd:
          - Accumulation: knowing what to keep and what to toss
          - Distribution: where/how to keep copies
          - Digital stewardship: maintaining objects isn't enough ... you must properly catalog things
          - Long term access means more than just saving bits ... they must be properly rendered

      Convolved on this are problems with copyright, fair use, payment for archives, orphaned collections...

      Then there's the cost of creating and maintaining a long term digital repository.
      Librarians have done a terrific job with our printed archives. Who will become our digital librarians?

  • by Oligonicella (659917) on Monday October 14, 2013 @10:10AM (#45121243)
    The entire concept of storing data for a billion years is nothing but ego. It would be akin to our finding a cave with forty-five thousand little paintings of dots, squares and circles - all perfectly preserved. What the hell does it mean? Curious and interesting to speculate on perhaps, but data? Not so much.
    • by Jeng (926980)

      Dead languages have been deciphered because of people devoting their lives to figuring out the ancient equivalent of forty-five thousand little paintings of dots, squares and circles.

    • This was my exact thought. We're just going to look like ancient assholes a la Nebuchadnezzar (hope I'm thinking of the correct ironic monument to a fallen empire).

  • ... at least what the article sort of suggests. I have never seen that group being called a bunch of short-term thinkers before.

    That and the concept of DNA storage of massive volumes of information sounds particularly epic. It would be incredible to think you could do something like store the contents of Wikipedia inside of the DNA of a redwood tree. The very thought that an organism could be used in such a way to preserve information is by itself something very interesting to consider... and something t

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If you were to preserve this for the next species that evolves here to find, where should you store it?

    If you make it easy to find and retrieve, then you run the risk of a primitive culture destroying it as heretical once it's decoded. That risk still exists today.

    If you hide it, it may never be found.

    Monoliths on the moon are the only thing I can think of at the moment.

    • I'm more concerned with:
        - Our successors not realizing the media contain prtentially valuable recorded information early on, resulting in the media all being destroyed long before the successors' technology is up to decoding them.
        - The burying of the information of interest to them in enormous masses of uninteresting or unintelligible chaff, resulting in the data of interest never being recovered and used. (Imaging one copy of Wikipedia buried in 500 years of LOLCATS.)

  • by wjcofkc (964165) on Monday October 14, 2013 @10:52AM (#45121607)
    Sometimes I wonder if we will ever stumble across a one billion year old time capsule from a sentient species that previously lived on this planet. It's safe to say that sufficient time would erase any trace of even an advanced civilization with the exception of anything that was purposely preserved. Yes, that would be cool.
    • by Bengie (1121981)
      I wonder what the continents will look like in 1bil years. Entire mountain ranges will probably be eroded or subducted back into the mantle.
      • by wjcofkc (964165)
        Where I live in the mid-west has been both part of one of the tallest mountain ranges in the planets history, yet has also been at the bottom of a very deep ocean. I imagine both of those states will come back around again before the sun goes boom - perhaps more than once. Geological time is my number one fascination, side-by-side with the cosmos.
    • See Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.
  • "Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth."
      - Ronald Reagan

  • And who would understand it? I have trouble with Shakespeare's iambic pentameter. Do you think the descendants of humans or some alien race will understand a Slashdot archive of "In Soviet Russia" quips?

  • DNA Data Storage (Score:4, Interesting)

    by structural_biologist (1122693) on Monday October 14, 2013 @11:56AM (#45122297)
    Last year George Church and colleagues published a paper in Science describing data storage using DNA (Church, Gao, and Kosuri. 2012. Next-Generation Digital Information Storage in DNA. Science 337: 1628. doi:10.1126/science.1226355 [doi.org]) . While perhaps not lasting billions of years, given that we've been able to read DNA from creatures that existed millenia ago (whose DNA was definitely stored in non-ideal conditions), DNA data storage could potentially preserve data for very long periods of time.
    • by HiThere (15173)

      Sorry, but...
      The only DNA that's preserved without corruption over the long term is that portion that is vital to the continued reproductive success of the organism. So even if you managed to encode a message into it, it would never be interpreted as other than functional.

      P.S.: Over evolutionary time, and a billion years is actually quite a bit longer than the minimal evolutionary time, even vital functions tend to be altered. There are a very few segments of DNA that have been preserved unaltered for th

      • When I mentioned DNA from millenia ago, I was referring to scientists being able sequence DNA from the remains of dead, extinct animals (like the woolly mammoth genome [psu.edu]). In the Science paper, they print the DNA onto a microchip which can be easily read out with standard DNA sequencing machines. Storing information in the DNA of a living organism would, of course, not work very well because of the low but significant error rate of DNA replication.
    • by AceJohnny (253840)

      Indeed, but what information [dresdencodak.com] would you choose to store?

  • You mean like "A Canticle for Leibowitz" ... joy.
  • by Tony Isaac (1301187) on Monday October 14, 2013 @12:36PM (#45122799) Homepage

    Archaeology demonstrates that survival over long periods of time is quite random and rare, and does not correlate well to the intent of the creator to preserve the creation for long periods of time. There are always unanticipated threats to the existence of these artifacts: war, natural disasters, rot, rust, erosion, language obsolescence, to name a few. The longer the time period, the more likely that some catastrophe will befall any given artifact.

    Works that have survived for millennia tend to be items that were copied prolifically. A few of the many copies or items survive the ravages of time, but not because the creators anticipated all of the things that could destroy their work.

    For example, none of the original manuscripts of the Bible have been found, as far as we know. But because those manuscripts were copied and translated so often, we have reasonably accurate copies of those original texts.

    A million years from now, nothing much will be left of these new storage media. They will only survive if people in the future consider the information important enough to copy it to new media, and translate it into the new formats of the time.

    • by Bengie (1121981)
      If you don't try, you will always fail. If you do try, you may fail.

      I'm sure future intelligent races will have historians, and they'd be thrilled to find something that is near impervious to corrosion and containing information.
  • Works especially well if it's something that pisses her off.
  • Its all very well storing it ON something for a billion years, but thats no use if that something is subducted into the earths crust in that time period of which there is a close to 100% chance it will happen. So storing it on earth is pointless , where else? Space? Nope. Any satellite would suffer orbital decay or be dragged off into the sun or some other body long before a billion years had passed and who the hell could find it even if it didn't?

    Its a nice intellectual exercise but ultimately futile. In 1

  • Ok, if it's for aliens, then maybe you need tungsten, and spread about a billion of the things around in the vain hope one of them will actually be found against all odds.

    But if it's for humans then consider. There are two scenarios:
    1) There is a global catastrophe or mass insanity of such proportions that all trillion of the penny-sized server computers of the near future which each have enough storage to store significant percentages of our data as a whole are wiped out, along with all of the electricity

  • Punching a vanadium tape and storing it on Charon would probably work well.

Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it. -- Perlis's Programming Proverb #58, SIGPLAN Notices, Sept. 1982

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