By Ryan Whitwam on October 14, 2013 at 1:18 pm
There will likely come a day when humanity itself has shuffled off the mortal coil, leaving behind nothing but data to list our accomplishments. However, most of the data storage methods we currently have only last a few decades if we’re lucky. The accumulated history of mankind surely deserves more longevity than that, doesn’t it? A team of Dutch and German researchers have developed a technology that could hold readable data for up to 1 billion years. That ought to give someone a chance to find it and learn how great we were.
If you want data to last for a long time, all the fancy high-density hard drives and magnetic media is right out the window. These technologies can be corrupted over time and rely on moving parts that may simply fail by the time a future society finds the physical storage medium. The team approached the problem of super-long-term data storage from an angle of optical consistency. The first step was to devise a material that could remain stable for eons.
The team settled on elemental tungsten because it has a very high melting point of 3,422 degrees Celsius and low thermal expansion. Basically, if you build something out of tungsten, it will remain mostly unchanged over time. Tungsten is somewhat malleable, though, so the researchers encapsulated the metal in silicon nitride. This inert solid is durable and is transparent to light, which allows the tungsten pattern to be visualized.
The optical disk developed by the researchers employs an increasingly common type of 2D matrix barcode called a QR code. You’ve probably seen them on product packaging and in advertisements. It’s a way to encode a block of text that can be read with today’s mobile devices, but the underlying binary nature of a QR code should be understood by any sufficiently advanced society in a post-human future. QR codes also have built-in error correction, which is useful when you’re too extinct to make corrections.