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5D, Holograms, & DNA: Amazing Hard Drives of the Future


Computers are getting smaller, faster, and
more powerful all the time. That’s awesome for a lot of reasons, but
it’s creating a problem: most of our computers store data pretty much the same way they have
for decades, and that technology is starting to run into fundamental physical limits on
just how small and fast it can be. Which is why a lot of researchers are working
on newer tech to take its place. And someday, you might be saving that fanfiction
you’re writing about Sherlock and Watson to a tiny glass disk that could last billions
of years, or storing it as a hologram. You might even be able to hardcode it into
DNA. You probably know that files on your computer
are stored as lists of ones and zeros. But we haven’t really talked about how those ones and zeros are actually stored in your computer. The usual explanation is that ones are ‘on’
and zeros are ‘off’, but that doesn’t explain how computers keep track of them without
power. Nothing’s really on
when you shut down your computer, but all your songs and documents stay saved anyway. That’s because computers don’t permanently
store data in patterns of ‘on’ and ‘off’. Instead, ones and zeros, called bits, are
stored in different ways, like in magnetic patterns on a hard disk drive. Computers read a hard drive’s data by spinning
the disks to the right place and reading the pattern with a tiny magnetic head. It’s kind of like how old record players
worked, but the head is way smaller and hovers above the disk instead of rubbing against
it. And you might remember floppy disks, which
were a portable version of this technology. We’ve been permanently storing data on hard
drives for decades, since the days when a file the size of a song would fill most of
a computer the size of a fridge. Today’s hard drives only need a few hundredths
of a millionth of a square meter to hold thirty million or so bits in an average song, but the technology
is still pretty similar, just smaller. We keep using these hard drives because they’re
pretty stable. Data stored as magnetic patterns generally
stays that way for years, if not decades. But those stored bits keep getting smaller
and smaller, and there are limits to how small bits can get before they start changing the
bits around them. Spinning hard disks at thousands of revolutions
per minute also takes a lot of energy, and all those rapidly moving parts can break or
wear out. Optical disks like CDs and DVDs also store
data in patterns, although they use physical patterns of bumps on their surfaces, which computers read by bouncing
a laser off the bumps. But there’s still a limit to how many bumps
you can cram together, since each kind of laser only reads bumps above a certain size, and smaller bumps generally need
more expensive lasers. Computers can also store data with transistors,
which are basically little switches where the ones and zeros really are ‘ons’ and
‘offs’. When you open a file, for instance, it gets
copied over to random access memory, or RAM. RAM is made of transistors that either block
electric current for a ‘zero’ or let it through for a ‘one’. Transistors don’t have any moving parts, so they can quickly change
between different states. It’s also a lot faster to read and write
data to transistors, since there’s no spinning disk involved. But you can’t use RAM for permanent storage
because without power, the transistors are reset to the ‘off’ position. Instead, you can permanently store data on
solid state drives, or SSDs, which use different kinds of transistors that don’t need constant
power to store data. That’s because they can let a charge build
up and get stuck in parts of the transistors. A transistor with a charge represents a “zero”,
and a transistor with no charge is a “one”. And the charges stay stuck even when there’s
no power. Another advantage of SSDs is they don’t
have any spinning disks or other moving parts that will break. SSDs are still much less common than traditional
hard drives, but they’ve become more popular over the last few years as they’ve gotten
bigger and cheaper. They’re faster, and even though the transistors
in SSDs can wear out if they’ve been used enough times, they’ll usually
take longer to wear down than it’ll take you to replace your computer. SSDs have seemed like the wave
of the future for the past few years, but someday they might be
as obsolete as the floppy disk. Because scientists are working on completely
different ways of storing data. In 2013, a team at the
University of Southampton in the UK came up with what they’re calling
five-dimensional data storage. They’re thumb-sized disks
with patterns etched into them, a lot like how CDs and DVDs
have data imprinted on their surfaces. But CDs, like most modern data storage technologies,
mostly just store information in two dimensions. DVDs can do a little better, since they can
actually have two different patterns, one on the surface, and one slightly underneath it. But these disks take that to another level. They have patterns cut into them with ultra-fast
lasers in three different layers, and each layer has two different patterns in it. So lasers reading these disks
can focus in one of five different ways, and each way they’ll read
completely different information. This is where the “five-dimensional” part
comes from. With all of these dimensions available,
the researchers estimate that each disk can hold 360 terabytes of data. That’s about three quadrillion bits,
or enough to store the entire Library of Congress
on fourteen little disks. Plus, these disks are made of glass, which
is one of the most stable materials we have. If we’re lucky, data on some of today’s
permanent storage devices might last between a few years and a few decades. But glass can withstand
really high temperatures and pressures, and it’s stable around lots of different chemicals. Thanks to that glass, data on these disks
could stay intact for billions of years! So computers of the future might come with
these tiny glass disks inside them, and tons of storage space. Then there’s stuff that just sounds like
science fiction. Take holographic storage. It’s called “holographic” because it uses
holography, where the interference of light encodes data, and it would work a little bit
like a CD or one of those 5D glass disks: To read something in holographic storage, you’d shine a laser on something
with a pattern in it. But there are a couple big differences. For one thing, there wouldn’t just be
one or three patterned layers; there might be thousands. The laser would go through whatever crystal
or other material had the pattern, instead of bouncing off of it, so it could be focused
on one layer after another throughout the entire thing. It also wouldn’t have to read one bump or
scratch at a time, like you have to with CDs or glass disks, or even hard drives and SSDs. Instead, the laser would shine through the
crystal onto something like a camera, which would capture the pattern
of the entire layer at once. So instead of reading one bit after another
like our computers do today, computers with holographic storage might be able to read
sixty thousand bits at a time. But our computers mainly work by analyzing
one bit at a time, which means we’d have to rework the way that our computers themselves
approach information. So it’s still far off in the future, but
holographic storage is in the works. But maybe you want permanent storage that
feels a little more personal than eternal glass disks or patterns in crystals. Well, you’re in luck. Your DNA is made of
chemical compounds called nucleotides that tell your body
what kinds of molecules to make. And scientists have been working on
ways of arranging those nucleotides to encode data that computers can work with. Nucleotides are smaller than the smallest
magnetic bits or transistors that computers use to store data today. So if each nucleotide in a strand of DNA represented
one bit of information, DNA could be way more efficient than anything else in the world
right now. We’re talking storing the entire world’s
data in just a teaspoon of DNA. And DNA could also be more stable than a lot
of other current methods we use. It’s not age-of-the-universe stable,
but it might be able to last for hundreds of years longer
than hard drives or SSDs. DNA storage has only been around
for about twenty years, so it hasn’t quite reached its potential yet. Scientists are still figuring out how to get
these incredibly tiny nucleotides in exactly the right order along an entire strand of DNA so that each one can represent
a bit of information. The current record is from a team that stored
about two hundred megabytes (about 1.6 billion bits, or about sixty songs’ worth of data)
on short DNA strands. It’s also hard to find ways of reading DNA
at a particular random spot, which is what computers have to do whenever they open a
file. If researchers work out these problems, though, there could be a day when you
really do have music in your DNA. Or, at least, in your computer’s DNA. For more in-depth science
behind the technology that runs our world, check out our recent mini-series
on the history of the internet. And if you’re new to SciShow,
don’t forget to subscribe!

100 Comments

  1. redhandsbluefaces Author

    I can't wait for the day that we can store bits of information on rows and rows of one-dimensional patterns of subatomic particles. A proton would be 1, and a neutron would be 0, and all the computer would need to do is figure out the charge of the particle. Or perhaps this can be done with atoms or different isotopes of molecules.

    Reply
  2. SytesSteal UrData Author

    Dude, I know Stanford biz school teaches moving your hands to make what you say more memorable, etc.

    But you're overdoing it to the point it's ANNOYING.

    Reply
  3. Jesse Neubauer Author

    Plus, isn't DNA capable of 4 different types? Base 4 instead of just base 2 like binary? Coding would get a lot more complicated, I bet…

    Reply
  4. PublicServiceAnnouncements PSAs Author

    Here's the trick for DNA storage to last indefinitely(or as long as a lineage of said bloodline exists.) introduce it through genetic modification like how viruses work. now hundreds of generations later a sample can be taken and a story can be read, all from ones descendants. here's the coolest part, with all the vast 'wastelands' of coding in our current dna there is a chance an advanced ancient race has already done so for us to find. once we figure it out for ourselves of course.

    Reply
  5. Josh White Author

    Because there's 5 layers, that's not 5 dimensions. The data on the disk is stored in essentially one dimension. You have a loop of continuous data spiraling around the disk like a string. You could certainly convince some people that it's 2D storage though. If you can now fit 5 'lines' where one used to be, basically you added a 3rd dimension with 5 discrete storage locations/bits. Considering how much data can fit on the two dimensions on a CD, this 'extra dimension' is insignificant. What you are doing is multiplying the data by 5, where as calling it 5D suggests you are increasing capacity exponentially with each dimension… which is the meaning of dimension. This is like what, going to give us disks that are 2.5X better than the current disks that read two layers.

    Also, how does 3 layers with 2 different patterns = 5? I was assuming each layer could be read two ways because otherwise I don't see how you read from one of 3 layers and then 2 'pattern'… layers? Wtf does that mean?

    Reply
  6. Wicked Pirate Company Author

    360 terabyte = 360,000 gigabytes. idk why they decided to use bits, which most people aren't familiar with, instead of gigabytes.

    Reply
  7. ErusPhoebus Author

    Well the problem with computer storage and the glass hard drive is the need computer has to re write data constantly.

    Solution would be to instead of using glass you use some crystalline gelatin super fluid that can change it's structure depending on input charge.

    Reply
  8. Shoop da Whoop Author

    actually we have been using ssds since 10 years now, these days you are an idiot if you choose to get a computer or a laptop without an ssd…

    Reply
  9. Patrick Brett Author

    We can already write in ATOMS (look up the IBM logo using ATOMS) they just need to make it cheaper then figure out how to read the ATOMS as 1's & 0's. Can't get much smaller than that!

    Reply
  10. Michael Wilson Author

    Why not just use a CD/RW with bumps the size of single molecules. You could use electrons instead of photons to read data. We have electron microscopes already. My idea could just use the same principle!

    Reply
  11. señor shaman Author

    Not one nucleotide for one bit, that'd limit it to just four different characters. Three nucleotides for one codon, of which the 4 different nucleotides arranged in up to 64 different codons which can then be read as characters. And as far as knowing where the computer to look for specific information, your cells already do this with marker DNA sequences, like promoter regions.

    Reply
  12. CG Account Author

    It always bugged me in the matrix where they used humans as batteries. Come on. Our brains or dna should have been used for computing and storage.

    Reply
  13. TGE Author

    I don't know if it was on this one I'm trying to find it and it's really frustrating I would apparently hitting already or whatever but that hard polymer kind of yellow door just looking disc I guess plastic that apparently had 3D memory

    Reply
  14. TGE Author

    Could make it play video apparently they know how to make it freaking digitally imprinted and Dakota with the computer while spinning or something but I don't know

    Reply
  15. TGE Author

    That awesome DIY or something or other space booster whatever and I can't find also apparently had some kind of PVC an electrically charged or whatever but the metal exhaust freaking animals approximately 12 inches long or something or whatever but

    Reply
  16. TGE Author

    Appeared as if it was the only extremely powerful looking usable kind of propulsion or whatever for space travel never really impressive

    Reply
  17. TGE Author

    Hawaii as of yet apps Androids and I don't know will not Hawaii as of yet but they don't alphabetize I don't know about Apple why they don't have or haven't made the ability of using all the cord that are available

    Reply
  18. TGE Author

    You're talking about DNA why don't you stem cells from the individuals urine with a cloning abilities that they have or and or also whatever using umbilical cords because I heard that they have a bunch of stem cells in them or talk about pre-programming to specialize in these things or whatever

    Reply
  19. Devin Sherwood Author

    That's kind of vague though when he says we can fit all of earth's data in a teaspoon of dna. Are we talking all of the data that man has collected over the millennia as a record of knowledge, or the fundamental information of matter itself?

    Reply
  20. Tommy Johson Author

    The faster, more storage our phones have

    The easier they break
    He more expensive they get
    And the easier we will have a heart attack

    Reply
  21. Danielle Murphy Author

    Does stargate sg1 pop into anyone else's mind? The 'crystals' that the aliens used and that sg1 switched to later in the show… I always thought that was just kind of stupid (still loved the show) so, mind officially blown 🤯🤯🤯

    Reply
  22. nyxthenocturnal Author

    7:06 couldn't a computer read the information like a ribosome "reads" the codons and use a start/stop codon kind of technique for the scanning device to start reading at the correct time?

    Reply
  23. Morpheus x Author

    Most advanced technology used to store the most stupid dumb primitive man made fairy-tales like the bible which has stupid things like talking snakes and walking on water .

    Reply
  24. Morpheus x Author

    SSDs are the most unreliable when it comes to data storage as they constantly require power to keep their memory cells refreshed and when these ssds fail it is nearly impossible to recover data from them by the users , if your ssd fails you will realize that ssds can not just read , write your data at amazing speed but also cause you to loose all your data at a AMAZING SPEED FOREVER .

    Reply
  25. Morpheus x Author

    even if the technology makes it possible to store data on media for more than ten years the companies manufacturing these devices will never produce these devices as it would mean that no one would be purchasing new storage media from them for ten to twenty years which would be equal to digging their own graves .

    Reply
  26. spambot71 Author

    DRAM uses capacitors to store the data. Transistors are of course involved in storing and retrieving values, but they're not responsible for the actual storage. SRAM uses transistors to store data, but it uses a ton more die area per bit and so is way more expensive and is generally used either in extremely small amounts (like microcontrollers that usually just have a few KB), or in applications where its higher performance is critical (like CPU caches)

    Reply
  27. spambot71 Author

    5:47 computers absolutely do not "analyze 1 bit at a time". You generally can't even access a single bit in memory, your minimum is 1 byte, with different instructions performing operations on larger word sizes like 32 or 64 bits (or much higher still with SIMD instructions, which have been around for many years). Not to multi-core processors, which have been common for a while now (including back in 2017).

    Reply
  28. Richard Deese Author

    Thanks for the video! I'm a little confused about the math here. 3 layers, each of which can be read in 2 different ways, sounds like 6D, not 5D [3×2=6 last time I checked.] Also, you must have a different definition of the word glass. All the glass I know about is perfectly stable over long periods of time, sure… unless you drop it, or melt it or drop something on it, or scratch it with almost anything… Holographic memory sounds more like it. DNA data storage sounds a bit odd… talk about 'blood music'! tavi.

    Reply
  29. believe me Author

    This is old information, back in 1990 I was already using my ram memory to boot my computer and my ten meg hard drive cost me five hundred dollars. I was informed about crystal storage back then, so they still have a way to go.

    Reply
  30. Crux 22 Author

    There is no doubt we're in the glass age… Super strong glass, flexible glass, glass fibers used to transfer data fast, radically superior glass storage drives are about to meet consumers (this will greatly solve our current storage problem)

    Just recently advanced batteries using glass instead of fluid were created that should shape the advancement of devices faster than lithium batteries brought us mobile devices such as laptops and cellphones…

    We might see more advancement in technology over the next decade than we've seen in the last three decades thanks to glass!!

    Reply
  31. IAN DUCAO Author

    Companies might not release this kind of storage tech because if a human has a single disk 360TB worth of storage that storage solution alone might last him his/her/it lifetime and we all know that companies focus more on profit rather than the betterment of humanity. They need recurring profit take a look at our current storage media HDD, SSD, and USB Flash Drives.

    Reply
  32. CthulhuianBunny Author

    That holographic data might be a way to overcome the storage part of Star Trek transporter technology.
    It's still nothing more than a fantasy because of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, but it's something.

    Reply
  33. Willy Kling Author

    It will become much more useful when they figure out how to make this glass storage re-writable. Is there not an element you can dope glass with that changes state if illuminated with a specific wavelength? There must be several possible elements that have a suitable electron shell vacancy to produce a physical change and thus flip between two states when blasted with a fricking laser.

    Reply

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