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Where Will Our Data Be in a Million Years?

Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 10

In 196 BC, phrases in three ancient scripts were carved on the Rosetta Stone in the Delta region of Egypt. These hieroglyphs remained cryptic for thousands of years until French scholar Jean-Francoise Champollion managed to decipher them in 1822. Those who engraved the Rosetta Stone were able to record their data and maintain it for more than 2,200 years. It survived natural disasters, wars and the rise and fall of entire civilizations. This raises the inevitable question: What will be the fate of our data, which we create today, in a million years’ time? Indeed, the problem of data storage and management is not an easy one. When NASA sent a spaceship to Mars in 1975, images and analyses of Mars’s environment were made. The data was saved on a magnetic tape, which was considered the latest technology at the time. But only 10 years later, NASA did not have one person capable of dealing with these magnetic tapes and reading their data, causing at least 20 percent of those precious images to be lost forever. Similarly, just 30 years ago, floppy disks were still used by people around the world to store their documents. Most of the assignments I personally wrote in college are still stored on some. But today, I cannot find a single computer or machine that can deal with them, rendering this data as good as dead. In today’s world, many consider cloud storage to be the most secure way to save data. But what if all the servers responsible for storing the data collapse? As with the magnetic tapes of the 1970s and the floppy disks of the 1990s, no one can say that these servers and technologies will last forever. Even if the data remains, what assurances do we have that computers or whatever smart devices people use in the future will be able to read our old files? They may very well become dead languages or obsolete technologies. However, there are a number of ambitious projects to store data for long periods, such as data storage in DNA, where nucleic acids carry the information of our own genes and organisms and have survived for millions of years. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich is working on a data storage research project such as the Swiss Federal Law on Nuclear Acids. While digital data uses zero and one, the adenine and cytosine bases would be zero and the guanine and thiamine bases would be one. In one gram of DNA, 455 billion gigabytes of data could be stored. As for the future of our data, DNA data can survive for about two million years at -18°C. This seems reassuring. Yet the cost remains high and the technology to do so remains a major challenge. Who knows what will end up happening with our data in a million years? – Essam Bukhari (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)