Image courtesy of Jeroen de Vries, University of Twente
If you want to store information for a long time—like several thousand years—your best bet is still etching in stone. All the newcomers, dating back to paper and moving up through magnetic storage and DVDs, are fragile and perishable. To send a note to a million years in the future, it takes tougher stuff than what we have readily available.
That’s why the QR code above was etched into tungsten and coated in silicon nitride. Hopefully, the message it contains can outlast humanity itself. Huge aspirations, to be sure, but it’s just one step on Human Document Project, a new group that aims to preserve a document about mankind for a million years.
“If you do nothing with the purpose of storing information for a long time, what will be stored and what will be found will be just a matter of coincidence,” explains Dr. Miko Elwenspoek, a professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. “In a few thousand years lots of things will be found, but what will be found, there will be no control over... What will be left will be architecture and everything in stone and not even all metal—everything in steel will be gone. The basis of our culture will drift somewhere, and during this drift lots of things will be lost.”
Elwenspoek is part of the Human Document Project, which he says isn’t a formal organization yet, but is rather “just a loose group of enthusiastic people from all over the world.” They’ve had two symposia, one in Germany and one at Stanford, with another coming up in England. They're meetings where people who work independently in their labs in their spare time can come together and exchange and develop ideas on how to preserve culture as a “gift to our far and away descendants.”
As you might imagine, there are huge practical barriers to preserving anything for a thousand millennia. Physical objects are subject to decay and destruction, and digital objects even more so. Even though we’re always saying things like, “Everything on the internet is permanent,” that adage is only really true on a human timescale, not on a geologic one—cultures drift, global catastrophes strike. Link rot is already afflicting the internet, which, far from being self-contained, relies on servers, unbroken connections and power grids.
The ideal super long-term data storage system should be able to survive without losing content; it should be self-evidently decodable for someone who doesn’t speak any currently-existent or known language, and it needs to be stored somewhere where it can eventually be found.
Jeroen de Vries, a PhD candidate at the University of Twente, headed the team that designed the QR code-bearing disk that, they say, can still be readable a million years from now. That's 25 times longer than the oldest known cave drawings. And de Vries and his team want to spare our distant descendants the mystery that surrounds prehistoric drawings, whose purpose, authors, and meanings are lost to time.
A close up of the storage device's tiny QR codes.
They chose tungsten because it is an extremely tough metal, and one that holds its shape well, even in extreme heat, as they proved by cooking the disk like bacon. They coated it in silicon nitride to toughen it up further. To prove just how densely they could pack the data on the disk, they not only etched on the QR code, they made it out of smaller QR codes.
“The QR is not important itself,” Elwenspoek, who also worked on the project, told me. “More important is that we are able to make dots, of a very small size. The [lifespan] of the dots is a very long time. That’s the main point. The QR codes are just for demonstration.”
While fairly ubiquitous now, the QR isn't ideal because it needs to be decoded somehow. Elwenspoek laid out why even the proper language or highly dense data for the message is one complex part of the complex problem.
“You first need a guide into the code,” Elwenspoek said. “Of course no one will be able to speak any existing language. Even in a few thousand years it’s improbable that anyone will speak English or Chinese—or understand it."
“So first you’ll need to teach them a language, then you can explain how the system works—how to crack the code, how to build a machine to read the code,” he explained.
The mechanism for reading the code could be anything from an optical microscope up to an electron microscope “for a really high density of data,” de Vries said.
“If we want high data density, we’ll probably move to something like binary or a binary language,” said de Vries. “But one of the first things that the human document project disk should do, is teach how to read the disk. It could be by images, like the record that was sent on Voyager.”
The golden records that were loaded onto Voyager, which launched in 1977, stand as one of the most well-known efforts to preserve the human record for future cultures. They're still riding outward from Earth, bearing instructions on how to listen to the “Sounds of Earth” for any extra-terrestrials that find it.
The Human Document Project is more focused on storing something on Earth, something that will “only” last until complex life becomes impossible on Earth. (Elwenspoek pegged that at around 500 million years or so from now.) They’re looking into geologically stable places on Earth to store that future disk, considering burying something on the Moon, and even thinking about stashing something in a stable part of the solar system for safe keeping.
It’s an incredibly compelling problem—one that leads to solutions so creative they border on bizarre. Taking a totally different approach, Canadian poet Christian Bok wanted to translate a poem into DNA and splice it into a bacteria, which would reproduce and preserve the writing until the Sun swallowed the Earth. The openness and complexity is what drew Elwenspoek to the field.
“First of all thinking of these things is just fun,” he said. “It’s very complex; you have to talk to many different people with different backgrounds—linguists, scientists, computer scientists. The choice of what to preserve needs people who know literature and music and culture so that’s a fun part.”
Fun aside, Elwenspoek is also motivated by trouble he sees in the long-term: a world heavy on people and getting heavier, short on resources and getting shorter, and with enough nuclear warheads around that conflicts can turn catastrophic.
I jokingly responded that with all the pressure, they’d better hurry up and get this human document going. “That’s what I’m saying,” was his straight-faced reply.
“So there is enough concern that there will come a major catastrophe within the next few thousand years and this could destroy our culture,” he explained. “In 10,000 years, something terrible could happen.”