The ancient Mesopotamians etched their history onto stone, the Chinese onto paper. The latter method would become the standard-bearer for documentation until the late twentieth century, when digital data became the norm. But even the efficiency and durability of digital information has its limits.
The transience of most digital media—from CDs to flash drives—renders some forms of data inaccessible after only a generation. General wear and tear on a storage device can corrupt the files stored within, rendering it just as vulnerable as paper is to fire.
This week, researchers at the University of Southampton demonstrated a new data storage technology that some are calling “immortal.” The device uses lasers to assemble tiny, nanostructured dots in fused quartz glass, durable enough to ensure data storage of well over one million years (we'll have to take their word for it). Furthermore, such a material allows for data capacity of 360 terabytes per disc and heat resistance of up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you’re a science fiction or comic book nerd, you’re probably thinking, “Hey, that’s like the memory crystals from Superman!” Well, you’re exactly right. Developers have even taken to calling the device the "Superman memory crystal."
Scientists have so far only recorded a 300 kb text file to one of these memory crystals, but the implications of such technology are profound. Currently, organizations have to back up their data archives every five to 10 years because of the short lifespan of most hard drives.
“Museums who want to preserve information or places like the national archives where they have huge numbers of documents, would really benefit,” said Jingyu Zhang, leader of the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre.
But such technology is not merely beneficial for short-term commercial data storage. Indeed, some researchers have taken a more archival, even fatalistic view of its significance.
“It is thrilling to think that we have created the first document which will likely survive the human race,” said ORC group supervisor Peter Kazansky. “This technology can secure the last evidence of civilization: All we’ve learnt will not be forgotten.”