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Archived for a million years

The “Human Document Project“ seeks to store information indefinitely

How long can you store documents? And on which type of storage unit – paper, CD, hard drive, USB stick? Everyone knows the problem and some certainly remember the days of floppy discs, cassettes, super-8 or VHS video tapes and audiotapes. These storage methods have more or less disappeared from the market and are no longer considered appropriate storage media for indefinite, future-proof data backup. But how can we know which medium or technology will still work and will be able to be decoded in the year 2525 – and with which types of devices? 500 years is considered a long time because digital data have a much shorter shelf life than books or cuneiforms.

Freiburg scientists and their colleagues from the “Human Document Project” have ambitious plans: They have set out to determine how we can archive information for a million years. In order to get clear about the unimaginable dimensions for such an undertaking: it is a timeframe of 10,000 centuries or 1,000 millennia. Other than perhaps nuclear waste there isn’t much produced by mankind that could last that long, according to skeptics. 

Engineers and archivists

The “Human Document Project“ manages all relevant aspects of data storage: content, storage systems, technology, data backup materials, data storage protection, coding. The physicist and engineer Gerald Urban, who has been professor for sensors at the Department of Microsystems Engineering – IMTEK since 1996, has organized this year’s conference as senior fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS). “It was really important to me that we take an interdisciplinary approach. That means presenting humanities scholars with the latest technological and software developments as well as showing natural scientists and technologists the challenges facing librarians and archivists at the same time.”

Besides the question of materials and technical issues: What exactly do we wish to pass down to the next umpteenth generations? “Important aspects of contemporary culture” is the somewhat nebulous response. But what should that be? Among others, the ancient historian Prof. Dr. Hans-Joachim Gehrke is in charge of answering that question. From 1987 to 2008, he held a professorship at the University of Freiburg and worked as Director of Outreach for the University College Freiburg. “For historians evolution is of interest, especially dramatic changes such as cultural schisms.” But even if a dictator had multiple documents destroyed, US researchers would start storing their climate data outside the country once Donald Trump became presidency, an enormous ecological catastrophe would hit us or a meteorite would slam against the Earth – “Something is always left over. There is never ground zero,” says Gehrke.

Made for eternity

A future-proof document would have to be able to survive such events too. By way of example for the level of durability we are talking about, the ancient historian mentions the burned clay tablets from the Babylonians or the ancient Egyptians’ pyramids:  “They were made for eternity, even when rulers knowingly steered the information about their effect such as in the Gilgamesch epic or the Codex Hammurabi.” But oftentimes knowledge gets lost: The US space agency NASA no longer has access to the data of the first moon landing. And that was dated July 20, 1969, which was not even 50 years ago. Measured against the temporal dimensions of the “Human Document Project” it is even absurd.

In the Egyptian delta of the Nile, a French officer found a stone tablet with an inscription in three languages in 1799 that was dated 196 B.C., which significantly led to the decoding of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. The famous Rosetta stone, which by the way weighs 762 kilograms, was found by accident. The chemist, engineer and former FRIAS fellow Prof. Dr. Andreas Manz from the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Europe, who is also involved in the project, put it in simple sounding terms: “We want to leave something behind.” He wants a “Rosetta stone for digital information”. Examples for successful long-term transfer come to him spontaneously: “The DNA code of hemoglobin is certainly billions of years old. And the amber found in the North Sea is 50 million years old.”

Something hard in something soft

The researchers prefer an old recipe, those of fossils: “You have to place a hard object in something soft, but not too soft,” says Manz. According to current research, it is a ten-centimeter large round disc made of silicon and weighing several grams, a monocrystal, inorganic and non-corrodible so it is resistant to decay. Manz’ student Park Jukyu cauterized information in an analogue fashion into this so-called wafer. With the naked eye you can see several signs: a man, a woman, a tree, carrots, the sun, mountains, a flower, fire, birds, fish. In four languages and three writings. You can discover additional content with a magnifying glass or a microscope. Scientists at Stanford and Harvard Universities in the US take the approach of infiltrating information into human DNA.

While ancient history, at least according to current records, did well without images or written observations, the age of images flooding our world has arrived. How can you select what is relevant and what is not – for the people who will inhabit the Earth thousands from generations from now? Or those who will visit planet Earth? In essence it is about one thing only: What’s left over? And perhaps those involved are asking themselves if they are working on an emerging new discipline. It is too early to answer that question. Perhaps it would make sense to ask that question in a million years.

Alexander Ochs / article from uni'leben 04'2017