Butler Lampson, Irwin Jacobs and Vint Cerf walked into a bar . . . .
Actually, they spoke at a symposium held at Google’s HQ sponsored by the American Academy for Arts and SciencesThe Public Good: The Impact of Information Technology on Society. (See the Stanford News Service report here.)
They mused on where technology would be in 20 years. One prediction: self-driving cars.
“In less than 20 years I think we’re definitely going to have…cars that drive themselves. I mean for real,” said Lampson. “This means you can read the paper while commuting.”
“What paper?” someone shouted. These guys still read daily printer papers? That is so-o last millennium.
Google-scale bit rot
More to the point was Vint Cerf talking about widespread data loss:
It’s the year 3000. You’ve just done a Google search and you turned up a 1997 PowerPoint file. You’re running Windows 3000,” he theorized. “The question is: Does it know how to interpret a thousand-year-old PowerPoint file? And the answer is probably no.”
If all of our generation’s technology is digital, and 1,000 years from now the current digital information is “rotten,” all of the information about our time period will be lost, he warned.
“By the year 2100 everyone will wonder about all of you and the beginnings of the 21st century because all the bits about you will be rotten and no one will be able to interpret them
The audience and Lampson disagreed, saying clever engineering could solve the problem. Engineers always think that.
The StorageMojo take
This isn’t so much about clever engineering as it is getting someone to do the scut work. Save all .ppt files as .pdf, for example.
But I like how both Vint and Butler implicitly assume that Google will be around in 1000 – or even 100 – years and will have that data preserved. That’s one prediction they didn’t even talk about.
Courteous comments welcome, of course. Let me know if Google posts a video of the event. I’d like to see it.
It’s been thought of, so this isn’t original. But the “simple” answer is for Google to also store Virtual Machines for each major application. Maintaining a “virtual infrastructure” that can run multiple generations of Virtual Machines is reasonable; one could even envision a future that can virtualize multiple different VMs, such that you might run PPT 2K7 in a VMware 3.4 VM on top of a 2050-era Intel VM inside of a circa 2100-era VM, etc. etc. etc.
Not saying it’s simple looking forward, but I’ll bet it turns out not to be as hard in the future as we imagine today.
This problem of obsolete data formats has an analogy with lost languages. Even now, there are some which cannot be decoded.
I suspect that the rate at which we are now inventing new digital protocls, data formats, architectures and programming languages far, far exceeds that of human languages through the whole of history. A veritable digital tower of babel (or should that be a tower of babbage?).
Future digital archeologists are going to have a tough time.
If the human race is still here in the year 3000 to witness such issues then I’ll be amazed.
Warning: this is a somewhat sarcastic post 🙂
We’re not in the year 3000 but it looks like we’ve already started to “forget” about how to do things, maybe the info were stored in an old AtariWriter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AtariWriter) document ?
Too bad that there was NO PowerPoint at that time 😉
Excerpt from the news:
“The US and the UK are trying to refurbish the aging W76 warheads that tip Trident missiles to prolong their life and ensure they are safe and reliable but plans have been put on hold because US scientists have forgotten how to manufacture a mysterious but very hazardous component of the warhead codenamed Fogbank. ‘NNSA had lost knowledge of how to manufacture the material because it had kept few records of the process when the material was made in the 1980s, and almost all staff with expertise on production had retired or left the agency,’ says the report by a US congressional committee. Fogbank is thought by some weapons experts to be a foam used between the fission and fusion stages of the thermonuclear bomb on the Trident Missile and US officials say that manufacturing Fogbank requires a solvent cleaning agent which is ‘extremely flammable’ and ‘explosive,’ and that the process involves dealing with ‘toxic materials’ hazardous to workers. ‘This is like James Bond destroying his instructions as soon as he has read them,’ says John Ainslie, the co-ordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, adding that ‘perhaps the plans for making Fogbank were so secret that no copies were kept.’ Thomas D’Agostino, administrator or the US National Nuclear Security Administration, told a congressional committee that the administration was spending ‘a lot of money’ trying to make ‘Fogbank’ at Y-12, but ‘we’re not out of the woods yet.'”
Vint needs original material. Preservation research has been around for quite some time in the global information management community.
The storage industry hopped on the bandwagon several years ago. I recall IBM’s Universal Virtual Computer (UVC) concept developed by Ray Lorie and STK’s “Century Project”. I believe UVC research may be ongoing, but the STK project is long dead.