War, disease, division – things don’t look too rosy for humanity right now. But thanks to Microsoft, at least we’re listening to Stevie Wonder after the apocalypse. The tech giant has teamed up with Elire Group to etch the world’s music onto glass plates and bury them in a remote arctic mountainside to ride out the end of the world.
The Global Music Vault will share space with the Global Seed Vault (better known as the Doomsday Vault) in Svalbard, Norway. The Doomsday Vault houses the largest collection of agricultural seeds in the world. The Global Music Vault strives to rival its neighbor seed for song.
While seeds are prepackaged, music is not. So if eternity is the goal, what’s the best medium for the job? Your laptop or smartphone won’t work. Hard drives last about five years before they start to fail; tape is good for no more than 10 years; and CDs and DVDs last 15 years.
Microsoft was already working on a long-term storage solution — a technology crucial for purposes other than music — known as Project Silica, when they teamed up with Elire. The team can encode music with superfast laser pulses that etch nanoscale 3D patterns into thin 3-inch quartz glass wafers. Each wafer contains 100 gigabytes of music, or just over 2,000 songs. They may soon contain a terabyte and eventually 10 terabytes or more. To retrieve the data, the team shines polarized light through the glass, and a machine learning algorithm translates the patterns it picks up in the glass back into music.
Now, about eternity.
The plates can survive baking, cooking, abrasion, flooding and electromagnetic pulses. (Not a word about crushes or zombies.) Microsoft estimates that the plates and the data they contain can live up to 10,000 years. “The goal is to store cloud-scale archive and retention data in glass,” said Ant Rowstron, an award-winning engineer and deputy laboratory director at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. Fast company†
The Global Music Vault proof-of-concept glass plate, to be deposited in 2023, will feature recordings from the International Library of African Music, the Ketebul Music archive in Kenya and the Fayha Choir in Lebanon. It also features interviews with Patti Smith and Paul Simon, concerts by Manfred Mann and Stevie Wonder, and works by singer-songwriter Beatie Wolfe.
“At a time when music has become increasingly disposable and devalued, this is a wonderful reminder of its long-term value to humanity,” Wolfe said. Billboard†
However, the Global Music Vault is not yet committed to using Microsoft’s glass. They have also experimented with other technology, such as high-density QR codes on durable optical film. Future archival storage options may even include DNA — which Microsoft, among others, is also exploring — because life’s source code provides incredibly high-density storage that can survive at low temperatures for thousands of years.
Of course, when the world ends, we may not have the technology — such as high-power computing and machine learning — to unlock the vault for a long time to come. But despite the doomsday nicknames for storage libraries like this, it’s not just the end of the world that motivates long-term archiving. Now that we’ve moved information to digital formats, the limited lifespan of those formats — not to mention their decentralized nature, with no librarian to manage and preserve value — is a concern. We are already losing information and this trend is sure to accelerate.
Work like that of Microsoft (and others) is crucial if we are to avoid losing today’s important cultural, legal, philosophical and scientific contributions. And as a culture-starved pilgrim of the future goods to stumble upon a mysterious vault lost to time in the permafrost – a plethora of seeds and some live Stevie Wonder tracks would be quite the find.
Image Credit: Global Music Vault