Soon, we might be able to preserve our data on the cloud to be kept for thousands of years on a mere sheet of glass.
Project Silica — a Microsoft project collaboration with Warner Bros. — is based around an experiment and investment to store and retrieve data on a piece of glass. The collaboration ended up being successful, with a 1978 movie “Superman” stored and retrieved on a glass sheet roughly the size of a coaster (75 x 75 x 2 millimetres).
The data is stored by creating a three-dimensional layer of nanoscale gratings and deformations at various depths and angles using ultrafast laser optics. To read it, machine-learning algorithms fixed in a microscope are used to decode the images and patterns as polarised light shines through the engraved silicon glass.
What is interesting is that this project can change the whole operation of cloud storage altogether. Instead of relying on fragile means of storage on the servers, Project Silica might just be the answer for all issues and concerns regarding the longevity of data storage in the long term, possibly reaching up to thousands of years.
How Can Project Silica Improve Data Storage?
Through Project Silica, Microsoft claims that silicon glass can withstand all sorts of environmental threats. This includes hot temperatures, submersion, scratches, demagnetisation, and many others that won’t damage the silica glass which otherwise would’ve destroyed the regular storage i.e. hard disk (HDD) or solid-state drives (SSD), which has been the concern whenever the topic of data preservation is brought up.
Silicon glass storage is built specifically for cloud computing — which is already a familiar term by many due to the introduction of Windows 10 and cloud storage such as OneDrive, Google Drive, and Dropbox. Recent applications of cloud storage such as Nvidia GeForce Now and Google Stadia cloud gaming have also surfaced from the introduction of cloud storage. From storing and retrieving data to seamless connectivity for gaming purposes — the reliance on servers is becoming more and more prevalent.
Typically, cloud storage means there would be a server (a supercomputer) storing all of our data for us. It collects data from computers all around the world and stores it in one massive vault space i.e. a server. This still uses the regular storage methods (HDD and SSD), which isn’t ideal over time because these data will need to be transferred to new media storage before they expire or are lost.
Repeated occurrences like this can squander unnecessary costs needed for the operation of transferring such data, especially as the data stored accumulates over time.
With Project Silica, however, no longer will the process of transferring data from one storage media to another be necessary, since a single glass storage can keep the data for thousands of years as opposed to every 10-30 years the standard storage can last. Unlike HDD or SSD, silica glass storage has the potential to lower the cost of long-term storage because of its longevity. Once engraved using the femtosecond lasers (ultrashort optical pulses commonly used in LASIK surgery), the structure of the glass is changed permanently and can be stored for centuries if not millennials.
Unfortunately, however, Project Silica is only meant for cloud storage, and the glass storage is only focusing on long-term data storage. In other words, glass storage does not prioritise writing/reading speed. They are meant to preserve data for a long period, possibly stored as some sort of civilisation artefact.
How Will This Impact the Human Culture?
Considering Project Silica’s success in storing and retrieving the 1978 movie on a piece of glass, we can foresee its capabilities in preserving cultural arts and significance. With the silica glass storage, we can store pictures and videos of our loved ones, like our favourite cats and families, for millennials to share with the next generations.
But perhaps we can also preserve something more — historical artefacts, such as arts produced by different cultures, can stored in the silica glass that can be kept for centuries to be discovered and learnt from. Usually, these are carved on a physical canvas such as stone walls or leather, but this time, art can be stored digitally to be preserved without risks of damage or losses. It can be considered as another step for humans to transition towards the digital world.
Is This Project Worth It?
Glass storage is meant for long-term archives. Note that Project Silica is meant for long-term storage, specifically for archives. If human memories in the form of pictures and videos can be archived for long periods, then it is possible for the newer generations for the humans to access those long-lost memories to learn about their traditions and families.
We will also need to consider the ethical issues that may surface from such technology. Perhaps we should consider: who will have the power on what gets preserved and what doesn’t. As silica glass storage isn’t easily destroyed, could they also risk exposure to privacy and security threats should anyone try to retrieve them? Not to mention that, just as with any other storage medium, we may also need to deal with privacy concerns, where some data which should be erased are kept by others.
Regardless of this, the revolutionary changes through the project are worth observing and studying. I’d say it is worth the time and money invested — every step taken to improve mankind, be it improvement of life quality or preservation of historical artefacts, is always welcomed.
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