Microsoft Lasers Music into Glass for 1000 Years of Storage

That avant-garde album of whale song, back-masked beat poetry and solo trombone you recorded a few years ago can now be preserved for the entertainment and general bemusement of future generations of humans (or, perhaps, aliens). The long-term data storage experiment comes to us courtesy of Project Silica, a collaboration between Microsoft and the Norwegian government.

Global Music Vault

(Image credit: Microsoft, Elire Group)

Known as the Global Music Vault (opens in new tab), the idea is to preserve our culture for the future, just in case something apocalyptic happens or everyone wakes up one day having forgotten how to whistle. With a lofty aim like that, regular CDs or flash drives full of MP3s won’t cut it. Instead, it needs to use something for storage that won’t degrade over hundreds, or even thousands, of years. And to do this, the project has turned to Microsoft’s Project Silica (opens in new tab), which stores data in glass platters with a potential lifespan of many thousands of years.

The music vault is a parallel project to the Global Seed Vault (opens in new tab), which keeps the seeds of today’s trees and plants safe for the future, just in case we need to rebuild agriculture for any reason. The vault is located on the island of Spitsbergen, Norwegian territory, within the Arctic circle. It lacks tectonic activity, is permanently frozen, is high enough above sea level to stay dry even if the polar caps melt, and even if the worst happens, it won’t thaw out fully for 200 years. Just to be on the safe side, the main vault is built 120m into a sandstone mountain, and its security systems are said to be robust. As of June 2021, the seed vault had conserved 1,081,026 different crop samples.

The music is to be stored in a dedicated vault in the same mountain used by the seed vault. The glass used is an inert material, shaped into platters 75mm (3 inches) across and 2mm (less than 1/8th of an inch) thick. A laser encodes data in the glass by creating layers of three-dimensional nanoscale gratings and deformations. Machine learning algorithms read the data back by decoding images and patterns created as polarized light shines through the glass. The silica glass platters are fully resistant to electromagnetic pulses and the most challenging of environmental conditions. It can be baked, boiled, scoured and flooded without degradation of the data written into the glass. Tests to see if it really does last many thousands of years, however, can be assumed to be ongoing.

Jurgen Willis, Vice President of Program Management at Microsoft, said, “In this proof of concept, Microsoft and Elire Group worked together to demonstrate how Project Silica can help achieve the goal of preserving and safeguarding the world’s most valuable music for posterity, on a medium that will stand the test of time, using innovative archival storage in glass.”

Of course, having a music vault is one thing, but deciding what to keep is also important. The Global Music Vault has therefore commenced Project ARV (opens in new tab), which looks to gather musical expressions from across the world for celebration and safeguarding. So ready your trombones, people! We honk into infinity.