It is believed that by digitising photos and other memories we have preserved them and so can store them forever, but this is only true if we have the capability to store them forever as well as the technology to read their encodings. If you place something onto a USB drive today, your computer may not be able to read it in 10 years time as the software that reads data on the specific drive may no longer be in use.
In 1975 the Viking 1 and Viking 2 probes were launched by NASA on a mission to Mars. At the time, information was recorded onto magnetic tape which was state of the art, however 10 years later the software to read magnetic tape no longer existed and so around 20% of the Viking data has been lost. At the moment there are many companies like Dropbox and Google Drive who promise to store your data in the cloud, which actually means that your files are stored on their servers. This sounds secure as you’ll always be able to log into your account if your own computer is broken, but if the company goes out of business, is hacked or sells their service then you may not have much notice at all to download your files again and store them somewhere else.
Servers need to be replaced every five to ten years otherwise the information on them will degrade and will no longer be accessible or readable. There are now a number of projects that hope to build a way to compress and store digital files which doesn’t degrade. At the University of Southampton, a project is working on creating an infinite storage device from molded silica glass. This is one of the most stable materials and may be able to store data for billions of years on earth. However, a 5 inch silica glass disk costs $500, while the super fast lasers used to place data onto the disk costs around $100,000. The project has been created by Peter Kazansky and he believes museums and libraries will benefit from the silica glass as they need to back up their archives every five years. Hitachi has also begun to develop another method of recording data onto glass which the company says will stop data from degrading for over 100 million years.
Despite being able to store data for a long time on glass, the current methods being tested can only hold around 40MB per square inch. This is nowhere near the capacity of a hard drive, which can hold up to a terabyte in the same amount of space. However, there is hope for improved capacity by using DNA. The four molecules can be rearranged to represent language and can store around 700 terabytes per gram. The chemist who created DNA encoding, George Church, has been able to store 70 billion copies of his book names Regenesis in a drop of DNA which is synthetic and almost invisible to the naked eye. DNA storage should last for around 700,000 years under ideal conditions, which is an amazing thought when you consider that the first ever printed book was only created 560 years ago.
Currently DNA encoding is too slow and expensive to be practical, as only a few labs have access to the necessary machinery and only 12.5GB can be read per day. However, a non profit organisation called Long Now could help our civilisation survive an apocalypse or some kind of digital meltdown by using 3 inch disks of nickel with 13,000 page’s worth of information on them. There are the same words and phrases in lots of languages, up to 15,000 in some cases. The disk is called Rosetta and can be read with a normal microscope. As well as this, Long Now is creating the Long Server which is a database of resources designed to help convert files from formats that are no longer used into readable ones.
Another way to get over the problem of not being able to read files is to create and encode them along with the same code that’s needed to decrypt them, allowing computers from centuries in the future to store and open files created in, for example, a Windows XP version of Microsoft Word. According to IBM, 90% of the digital data generated by the human race has been created in the last two years. So it’s important that we look at encrypting, encoding and storing our huge amounts data for the future, or it may be lost forever within just a couple of decades.