The latest in preserving human civilization was announced on Thursday: an encyclopedia of images and data stored in DNA and shipped to the moon in 2020.
One of the alarming discoveries of the modern era is that data storage technologies, from VCR tapes to floppy disks, are becoming obsolete at an increasing clip. As the cost of genetic sequencing has decreased in the last two decades, some researchers have touted the DNA found inside living cells as the data storage material of the future.
“DNA is very durable, and we want data storage that will last on the scale of millions of years,” Nova Spivack, venture capitalist and cofounder of the Arch Mission Foundation, told BuzzFeed News.
The foundation, along with the University of Washington, Microsoft, and Twist Bioscience, intend to make a “special collection” of 20 books and more than 10,000 images, in what is billed as the largest ever encoded DNA data archive.
“DNA is so dense that we can store a lot of information in a single gram,” said University of Washington computer scientist Luis Ceze in a statement on the project. “This is huge because room is so limited in space missions.”
The DNA archive will be added to a “Lunar Library,” first announced in May, in which portions of Wikipedia and other data sources are encoded on nickel plates.
The archives are intended for future humans, in case civilization on Earth collapses, or for future aliens curious about humankind. The Lunar Library will include simple instructions for decoding its information and later building a gene sequencer to read its contents, meant to keep it simple for future finders.
The foundation intends to seed not only the moon but many places in the solar system with such archives, starting with a small one tucked inside the glove compartment of the red sports car launched into a Mars deep orbit by Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket earlier this year. (That also contains a copy of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, about a galactic dark age surmounted with the help of encyclopedists.)
Spivack pointed to climate change, nuclear weapons, natural disasters, and past cycles of mass extinctions as reasons to worry about preserving human civilization. However, some experts say the idea is bonkers.
“I think these people have watched too many Star Trek reruns,” Utah State University’s Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse Of Complex Societies, told BuzzFeed News.
“The factors that make society vulnerable to collapse and lead to the growth of civilization evolve in a complex fashion that evolve over generations,” Tainter said. “You can’t reassemble a civilization from scratch.”
Egypt was more than pyramids, and Silicon Valley is more than computer chips. From the dawn of civilization to today, complex societies have arisen through the interplay of particular cultures and technologies over generations in an interlinked fashion, Tainter said. You can’t plug bits and pieces of one vanished civilization into another to recreate a unique culture.
“My colleagues in archaeology cannot agree on the interpretation of ancient rock art,” he added, expressing doubt about a society recovering from collapse comprehending DNA technology.
Still, Spivack suggested that future people — or aliens — might have much to learn from the records of what would be a failed human civilization: “They can learn from our mistakes.”