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So, somewhere around one hundred years from now, a terrible - and unexpected - disaster strikes Earth, most of humanity dies off, yadda yadda yadda.

Luckily, secret-lab-dwelling scientists had stashed tons of knowledge about a lot of probably important stuff (test data ! everybody loves tests !) inside a super-computer. Unluckily for them though, they all die, and the secret lab's power supply shuts down.

Four hundred years later, a bunch of explorers stumble upon our secret lab, and manage to turn the power back on. As the lights illuminate the lab, they hear a "Hello, World !" resounding throught the facilities. It seems our computer is still alive !

Now my question is, if we assume that our computer is safe from any environmental harm, and take only the main parts (cpu, etc...) into account, is there any existing or theorised way to build a computer that would still function after centuries ?

I've read in this answer that even with extreme luck we couldn't really expect much from hard drives past a few decades and from what (little, admittedly) I know, computers can't really run on an optical drive (then again, I may be wrong, I didn't manage to find anything about that), even though some of them could theorically store data for a millenia .

So is this theorically possible, or will I have to handwave my way through with a magnificient "Future YO ! Look, there ! hoverboards !" ?


EDIT : Hello again everyone ! Tanks a lot for all your answers and ideas !

A little update on what I decided I'd go with so far, based on your answers and my own research.

  1. How to store the data ?

This is pretty much covered : either DNA Data Storage or neronix17's Data Crystals with the corresponding reading/writing devices, potentially accompanied by more conventionnal drives for quicker access once data has been restored.

  1. How to preserve usable boot and restoration programs ?

If the above-mentionned techniques can't fill this specific role (and I'm not even sure we can determine this yet, given the early stage these technologies are at), Jim2B's answer provides extensive information about all this, so I'd most likely go for magnetic core memory.

  1. How to deal with components decay ?

This is where I'm kinda stuck. Ville Niemi mentioned that some of the computer's components will be degraded as time passes while Monty Wild affirms the opposite in the comments. Now I'm expecting that the components would suffer at least some kind of degradation over 400 years, but would it really be all that catastrophic if they are kept unused and in an optimal environment ?

By the way, I'm kinda new to this site so please do tell if I need to mark the current question as answered and/or ask this in a separate question, I'm kinda confused ._.

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    $\begingroup$ I have created a couple of (Linux) computers that ran off optical disks and RAM only (no hard drive). $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Oct 28 '15 at 1:50
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    $\begingroup$ this really isn't enough for an answer, but why bother with a computer at all? why not have physical copies of all the data needed imprinted (not with ink, but literally imprinted into the plastic) on plastic sheets. Stored within airtight containers, these would theoretically last forever. You are already potentially handwaving away the language barrier (your computer would speak a language that may not exist anymore), so just do it the old fashioned way. $\endgroup$ – C. VanHorn Oct 28 '15 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ @NinDjak you just really, really want to make is say "Hello World" when it powers up, don't you :-D:-D:-D I'm with you! $\endgroup$ – Patches Oct 28 '15 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Patches Well, it was either that or the Windows startup jingle :p $\endgroup$ – NinDjak Oct 28 '15 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ A datapoint that I feel needs to be recorded somewhere. I'm at a company moving premises. Someone just handed me a Compaq 386/25e that for unknown reasons had been occupying storage since ... when? why? So I fired it up, and it still works. First used in 1992, stored since 2002. Sadly, we now know it's the control system for an ancient piece of hardware that was junked many years ago, so this survivor is headed for the scrap-heap. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Dec 1 '15 at 11:59
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We don't really know

The recent development of our current digital environment (commercial use of the internet dates back to roughly 1980 - which also coincides for the approximate start of home computing), means that we haven't really had an opportunity to test their long-term viability (essentially we can't even test the digital data standards & storage methods for more than about 35 years because they simply haven't been around longer than that).

But, currently all of the standard storage mechanisms that we use today are only expected to remain viable for from a few years to a few decades (this includes so-called archival media like optical disks and data tapes).

So far we've never encountered a need for extremely long duration archiving of data, so no one has ever bothered to design a system to work for that situation. If the scientists and engineers in your story had a few years of warning, they could probably develop something that would work.

I do not know how it would look but, based upon experience with various methods, I can guess.

But maybe we can guess

The F-15 originally was built with "primitive" magnetic core memory. This type of memory is non-volatile and highly resistant to EMP and other things (like cosmic rays) that can damage the data stored in modern memory. However, it is much slower and bulkier than modern memory.

Magnetic Core Memory

Magnetic Core Memory Durability

Core memory is non-volatile storage—it can retain its contents indefinitely without power. It is also relatively unaffected by EMP and radiation. These were important advantages for some applications like first-generation industrial programmable controllers, military installations and vehicles like fighter aircraft, as well as spacecraft, and led to core being used for a number of years after availability of semiconductor MOS memory (see also MOSFET). For example, the Space Shuttle flight computers initially used core memory, which preserved the contents of memory even through the Challenger's disintegration and subsequent plunge into the sea in 1986.

POST

I imagine your computer's bootstrap would be composed of similar bulky but reliable and non-volatile memory. This basic bootstrap functionality, perhaps similar to your computer's POST (power on self-test), would ensure important portions of the computer still worked and would then (slowly) load the actual operating system for the device.

Flag failed components/use good ones

Because I would expect many of the bits of the computer to have degraded enough to be unusable, the overall system probably would provide massive redundancy for each critical component. As the POST operations encounter failing components, it'd automatically switch to testing the next redundant component in lines. Since the POST operations would likely be fairly elementary, the overall system would likely flag the "failed" component for re-evaluation by the full-up OS once the boot cycle completed. A more thorough mapping of the essential components (e.g. CPUs might reveal just certain portions of the chip failed and that the CPU was otherwise OK). The OS would use this map of its redundant components to ensure it could keep operating as long as a complete set of essential functions remained operational.

After boot up cycle

This computer system would probably fall back on a bank of relatively modern memory chips for actual operations after the initial bootstrap. It'd be up to the original POST operations to initially determine which banks of modern memory were still viable and then (like with the CPU), a more sophisticated utility in the OS would perform a more thorough mapping of the memory to see how much of it remained usable.

Data recovery

After the basic OS and self-check programming began operating, the computer would begin to activate its many RAID (redundant array of independent disks) like data storage systems. The "drives" in the system would be special low density (and probably solid state) memory drives. The RAID system would verify the bit states across multiple drives and slowly reconstitute any damage data in the storage systems.

Slow and reliable (tortoise) performance

In your scenario, the primary goal of the hardware would be reliability and data redundancy so the storage arrays for your data would be quite large and probably not all that fast. A set of fast "working" hard drive storage might be provided for daily operations.

The time it took for the RAID like systems to perform the data validation checks and/or rebuild damaged sections could be quite lengthy (days, weeks, or substantially longer - depending upon the speed of the devices and amount of data we're discussing). From a dramatic perspective this might allow the author to perform a variety of reveals through the course of the book as different sections of the data storage are flagged as "ready for use", loaded into the faster systems, and made available to the characters in the story.

If the data reconstruction was imperfect it might allow the computer to provide false information too...

All good things come to an end

All hardware eventually fails.

Meaning even if your computer booted perfectly upon the application of power, mechanical hard drives fail, solid state drives fail, memory fails, etc. Your computer that survived the centuries would eventually wear out and stop working. It should make that point to the inheritors of the system as soon as possible.

And another thing

Richard Feynman sponsored some prizes to groups that could write data ("There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom", in conventional analog form, in the highest density. For instance trying to print the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin. The only thing you'd need to read the data is a really good microscope. This sort of data's shelf life is potentially MUCH higher than that of digitally stored data and you wouldn't have to worry about computer interoperability and changes in encoding standards as a condition of data retrieval!

"There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" was a lecture given by physicist Richard Feynman at an American Physical Society meeting at Caltech on December 29, 1959.1 Feynman considered the possibility of direct manipulation of individual atoms as a more powerful form of synthetic chemistry than those used at the time. The talk went unnoticed and it didn't inspire the conceptual beginnings of the field. In the 1990s it was rediscovered and publicised as a seminal event in the field, probably to boost the history of nanotechnology with Feynman's reputation.

...

At the meeting, Feynman concluded his talk with two challenges, and he offered a prize of $1000 for the first individuals to solve each one. The first challenge involved the construction of a tiny motor, which, to Feynman's surprise, was achieved by November 1960 by William McLellan, a meticulous craftsman, using conventional tools. The motor met the conditions, but did not advance the art. The second challenge involved the possibility of scaling down letters small enough so as to be able to fit the entire Encyclopædia Britannica on the head of a pin, by writing the information from a book page on a surface 1/25,000 smaller in linear scale. In 1985, Tom Newman, a Stanford graduate student, successfully reduced the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities by 1/25,000, and collected the second Feynman prize.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you provide citation for "So far we've never encountered a need for extremely long duration archiving of data, so no one has ever bothered to design a system to work for that situation. " Seems pretty unlikely. Particularly given that we do have dooms-day archives eg wired.com/2015/07/film-preservation (Scroll to the bottom to get info on the Digital data, thought few details on its storage mechanisms). I'ld be interested to know if there are infact no standards for preserving digital data. $\endgroup$ – Lyndon White Oct 28 '15 at 4:18
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    $\begingroup$ Cite? We've only had electronic digital computers in existence for about 40 years. You're asking about viable data storage for 10x more time than this. Now consider that most forms of data storage have remained in common use for substantially shorter periods of time. Finally, I can't prove a negative but then, I have worked on a project in which we thought about this problem. We had another constraint that we wanted our media to not become obsolescent too. The best we developed was storing data on hard drives, store them in a secure location, and periodically copy data to new drives. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Oct 28 '15 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ The statement I wanted the citation for is "no one has ever bothered to design a system to work for that situation". While no-one have proved such a system to work, as data hasn't been around long enough, designing for it seems certain to have happened -- you yourself just gave a design. There are several more designs and guidelines in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_preservation . Not certain any are for hundreds of years. $\endgroup$ – Lyndon White Oct 28 '15 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ Consider using core rope memory, perhaps not just for simple program storage but also for data storage if you can live with the bulk. It'd probably last a lot longer than many modern technologies, and works fine as long as you don't need read/write capability. (Magnetic core RAM is a similar technology for read/write memory.) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 28 '15 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks @MichaelKjorling, the magnetic core memory was what I was thinking of. It's non-volatile, EMP resistant, and less susceptible to cosmic ray damage than modern memory. However, it's slow, bulky, and expensive (compared to modern chip memory). Link provided in the answer above. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Oct 28 '15 at 20:57
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I'm a little surprised nobody brought up the quartz glass storage device that was talked about the past couple of years, I couldn't find if anything came of it but there's a few articles about it here, here and here.

As the last one point out it sounds like something out of Superman or some other sci-fi shows/movies, but it makes sense. I mean we have had the technology to etch crystals with drawings and 3D 'sculptures' inside of them so it seems perfectly reasonable to think we could do that and have a computer read it as information. The length of time these could last appears to vary quite a bit but I'm sure millions of years is considerably longer than you need.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wow ! now this is interesting ! I was going in a different direction (which no one had mentionned either, by the way), but this seems like a way cooler and sturdier alternative. Now the problem is that this technology is at an even earlier stage than the DNA storage solution, and as such raises lot of questions about what we could achieve with this (beyond one-time writing and reading). I'll have to give it some more though but I'm almost tempted to start another question to try and answer this. $\endgroup$ – NinDjak Oct 28 '15 at 20:58
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I think computer components should decay with a half-life just like radioactive materials. Assuming half-life of 5 years after 400 years you would have left... not that much of the original components. Having a secure location and being in deep sleep mode should help significantly. I think you could realistically expect the system to still have between one billionth and one trillionth of its original capacity.

So I don't think we can assume any current or projected technology to cover this. But you say this would happen one hundred years in the future. They might have developed such technology. They certainly would have if they had expected the end to be near.

The simplest rubber-science (best that can be provided for "computers century from now" category) solution would be for the computing systems to have self-repair capability. If the system also had high level of redundancy and a secure supply of power, both of which are reasonable possibilities, it could feasibly survive for a long time. It would still have much less capacity than it used to have, but chatting up some explorers should not really require that large a portion of capacity to survive, if the system was originally designed to support cutting edge research.

Unfortunately the only way to build a self-repairing computer with massive redundancy we can currently theorize is bio-mimicry. That is, to create an artificial organism that supports a very large brain modelled after the human brain. Probably it would be more like an entire colony of interconnected brains. Possibly suspended in a container of nutrient fluid with an entire artificial ecosystem. I guess it would be like a large aquarium with "brain-coral" in it.

Radio-thermal or geothermal power could support the ecosystem for a few centuries despite what happens on the surface. And you might be able to justify that by desire not to have an energy trail that can be used to locate the lab on the surface.

Note that with a persistent power source and continuous activity needed for the self-repair and memory refresh, the computer would have been awake and aware for the entire 400 years. It might be confused by visitors after such a long time and suffer severe culture shock. So full ability, but difficulty to communicate? It might appear to suffer from mental issues and general weirdness to the explorers.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comparing computer hard ware degradation with radioactive decay seems very far fetched. Even if this might be somewhat true for current consumer electronics, there is absolutely not compelling relation between the two... $\endgroup$ – fgysin Dec 2 '15 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ @fgysin I didn't bother doing that much due diligence since it was not important to the answer and there are too many unknown factors in the specific case. In actual fact the failure rate would increase over time as the components that didn't already fail would still be more worn out. That makes half-life model a convenient upper limit for the lifetime as the actual system can't do better. Which was enough for my purpose, but as you say not really true as the actual rate increases over time. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Dec 3 '15 at 9:05
  • $\begingroup$ More fundamentally I am trying to suggest that it should easily be feasible to create a purpose built computer which will have a much, much longer "half-life" than the mentioned 5 years. There are plenty of real world, consumer examples of computers still being in perfect working condition after 10, 15, 20 years - and those systems have not been purpose built for long survivability. $\endgroup$ – fgysin Dec 3 '15 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ @fgysin Absolutely, but it isn't really relevant. The failure still follows the same mathematical pattern, the added robustness simply adds redundancy, ie a robust system can fail more before any actual effect. For older systems or, as you say, purpose built systems the level of redundancy can be very large. It can realistically take decades before anything breaks. But eventually the math will catch up. This is why the actual failure rate increases over time. Usually you could "just add robustness", but in computers it actually makes them less efficient. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Dec 3 '15 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ @fgysin Sorry, for being bad at explaining, but since it has been few months, I am pretty much trying to rebuild the logic behind the answer. The fact that it is my thinking does help, but certain vagueness is unavoidable. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Dec 3 '15 at 15:34
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You may want to check out http://longnow.org/essays/written-wind/ for issues with retrieving archives over long periods of time.

To keep a digital artifact perpetually accessible, record the current version of it on a physically permanent medium, such as silicon disks microetched by Norsam Technologies in New Mexico, then go ahead and let users, robot or human, migrate the artifact through generations of versions and platforms, pausing from time to time to record the new manifestation on a Norsam disk. One path is slow, periodic and conservative; the other, fast, constant and adaptive. When the chain of use is eventually broken, it leaves a permanent record of the chain until then, so the artifact can be revived to begin the chain anew.

The Norsam disk is supposed to be good for a minimum of 1000 years (cite: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HD-Rosetta). If you're looking into a computer system, you'd want a bootstrapped system where it could build itself.

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Perhaps long-lived computers will be created for use in space probes. Just as Galileo operated for years in transit and then the harsh radiation environment near Jupiter, an interstellar probe would need to be built to last.

Even if only meant for (say) 50 years, if left in a calm environment rather than the radiation of space, it may last much longer.

So, it is conceivable that such a computer will be built and available for use in such a lab.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's not really an answer to my main question, but still is useful as an eventual justification (or handwave :D), thanks ! $\endgroup$ – NinDjak Nov 6 '15 at 16:29
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One possible solution to data decay would be a mirrored array of data storage devices (possibly hard drives or flash memory). You would probably need an array of four or eight drives (possibly with some mirrored parity drives) to maintain data for centuries if not millennia. Flash memory would probably be best, since it's non-magnetic and the main limitation on its lifespan is read / write cycles.

Even if there is significant data corruption on all the drives, you should be able to restore most if not all the data. At that point, you're dealing with physical breakdown of the device, not decay of the data itself. An optimal climate controlled environment would probably protect the data storage devices themselves for 400 years.

If you're looking for longer-term storage and not concerned about cost or capacity, you can use gold leaf punchcards - which will last pretty much indefinitely.

The computer itself probably wouldn't be in great shape after 400 years. Modern electronics simply aren't designed to last that long - a few decades at most. With careful consideration and design - as well as an ideal environment - would probably let you work around those problems. A sealed inert gas environment might do the trick there.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are inert gazes already used for storage/conservation means nowadays ? I kinda get the logic behind this (no chemical reactions, if I understood well) but could'nt find any live examples $\endgroup$ – NinDjak Nov 6 '15 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for gold leaf punch cards. Even if they start to deteriorate, it should be possible to correct most errors easily -- a slightly bigger hole will work just as well as a small one. $\endgroup$ – Clearer May 16 '18 at 11:45
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I am in two minds on this. Either you go all solid state with flash drives and as few moving parts as possible OR you go steampunk and have a completely mechanical computer similar to Babbage's Difference Engine. The level of technology required to maintain it is very low.

You could even have a order of monks who maintain it over the centuries without knowlegde of what it actually does.

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There are new technologies being developed and tested nowadays, for example the 5-dimensional computer 'memory crystal' that according to the scientists the Information encoded with lasers, has a thermal stability of up to 1000°C and a practically unlimited shelf life.

There are a couple of links bellow with news about it.

Like this

And this

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    $\begingroup$ The fact that memory is stable doesn't help if the equipment to make us of it no longer works. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 6 '15 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ neronix17 already mentionned this in this answer and it has already been 'selected' as a potential memory storage device (if you look at the 'Edit' part I added to the question). The main problem is, as @MichaelKjörling said, the degradation of the computer's equipement. I'll probably just handwave my way through this particular problem but it would still be interesting to know the answer $\endgroup$ – NinDjak Nov 6 '15 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ For a bit more in-depth discussion, this actually aims to solve the problem described in Immortal media. Which is a potentially important development in order to make a long-lasting computer, yes, but as the linked blog post states, "Media life is only one of many, many threats to which bits are subject. Fixing one sub-problem does not solve the overall problem.". // cc @NinDjak (And I see I typed "us" instead of "use" in my previous comment. Oops.) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 6 '15 at 17:46
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Try some wooden computer powered by mechanical energy. Really, computers are just some really fast Abacus And it's state can last for centuries !

Really, I think a pure mechanical computer is possible. Useless because of electricity, but it could be powered by fuel.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd pay to see scientists doing advanced computation using abacuses :'D $\endgroup$ – NinDjak Nov 6 '15 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @NinDjak: check this video of a wooden Turing Machine : youtube.com/watch?v=vo8izCKHiF0&app=desktop $\endgroup$ – Kii Oct 11 '17 at 10:14

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