Emerging Technologies: The Library of Everything
With limited space on shelves and hard drives alike, librarians can spend significant amounts of time “weeding” – archiving or disposing of unpopular books, journals and data. What if we didn’t have to do that? What if we could utilise something like Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel (https://bit.ly/2ARcjrL) in real life – a (practically) infinite library. Surprisingly, there are teams of researchers around the world working to make this a reality.
Putting the data into the DNA
In 2012, genomics maven George Church first demonstrated that DNA could be used to store data,1 and since then a number of companies have been working to create a commercially viable product. Microsoft sees DNA storage as a future part of its Azure cloud services,2 and has recently announced significant advances in automation of DNA-based data storage and retrieval. DNA is synthesised artificially by combining the four amino acids adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T), in a similar way to the binary code that underlies today’s computers.
This sounds like it could be expensive and cumbersome, and indeed today it is – but that will change. And the rewards for the first team to make the process practical are potentially enormous. In 2017, a team from Columbia University and the New York Genome Center managed to cram 215 petabytes of data into a single gram of DNA.3 That’s around 250,000 times as much data as will fit on to a typical 1 terabyte PC hard drive, or the equivalent of about 900 billion pages of text.
Against curatorial instincts
But we are habituated to a rationing mindset, based on drive capacity and shelving space for collections, so could we actually cope with the idea that we might never need to throw anything away? It’s one of the most profound changes imaginable and goes against all our curatorial instincts. Perhaps “hoarding” data and information will no longer be seen as slightly aberrant behaviour. Instead, perhaps complete data retention – for everyone, all the time – will become the norm.
Nothing is ever forgotten
When we move beyond the specialised domains of research and education, it becomes clear that being able to keep everything forever might not always be welcome. We’re starting to see the chilling effects of being followed around for life by youthful hijinks exposed on social media, and how risks for vulnerable or marginalised groups can be amplified by the internet. But many of today’s blockchain start-ups are positively excited about a world where nothing is ever forgotten, and DNA-based data storage could be the technology to make this practical.
The kids are curators
Perhaps the emergence of the digital vegan4 tells us everything we need to know about the direction of travel of privacy and data rights. Will a generation that has been online since their first ultrasound increasingly reject pervasive screens, data and internet-connected devices – choosing instead to carefully curate the information they share about themselves? Arguably it’s what we should expect from kids who have grown up with Instagram and Snapchat filters, and the parents and grandparents among us should be proud that they are seizing control of their own narrative. The kids are alright!
So, are we all set to toss hard drives and USB sticks into the recycling bin? Not quite; the cost of DNA sequencing has fallen exponentially over the last 10 years as the technology has been commoditised, at the same time as the speed of sequencing has increased. This is great for getting the data back from the DNA, but it is still slow and expensive to put that data there in the first place. So, don’t get rid of your library collections or data centres just yet, but do plan for a future where data will be cheaper and more abundant, and start thinking about the implications of finding needles in haystacks.
1 Service, R. F. “DNA could store all of the world’s data in one room”. Science 02/03/17.
2 With a “hello” Microsoft and UW demonstrate first fully automated DNA data storage. Microsoft, 21/03/19. https://bit.ly/2TlJ4Uh
3 Cornish, C. “How DNA could store all the world’s data in a semi-trailer” FT, 05/02/18.
4 Hill, K. “I Cut The ‘Big Five’ Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell.” Gizmodo 08/02/19.