Data Driven Futures

Microsoft uses AI to store Superman in glass

Written by Hannah McGrath

Microsoft and Warner Bros have announced that a collaboration to store the data of the entire Superman movie on a piece of glass has been successful.

The software giant said Project Silica saw scientists use recently discovered ultra-fast laser optics and advanced artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to beam the data into a piece of quartz glass the size of a drinks coaster measuring 75 by 75 by two millimetres thick.

The proof of concept proved that it is possible to encode the data by creating three-dimensional nanoscale gratings and deformations at various depths and angles.

Machine learning algorithms are then able to read the data back by decoding the encrypted images and patterns as a polarised light is shone through the glass.

The companies believe the technique could provide a new method for media, documents and contracts to be stored as so-called ‘cold data’, which can be defined as archival data that may have significant value or that companies are required to maintain — but that doesn’t need to be frequently accessed, such as patient medical data, financial regulation data, legal contracts and building plans.

Microsoft said the hard silica glass can withstand boiling water, being baked in an oven, microwaves, floods, scouring, demagnetisation and other environmental threats, meaning it provides a far more resilient storage environment than current physical or other digital methods for storing historic archives and cultural artefacts.

It represents an investment by Microsoft Azure to develop storage technologies built specifically for cloud computing patterns, rather than relying on storage media designed to work in computers or other scenarios.

Currently, for companies such as Warner Bros with significant archives, long-term storage costs are driven up by the need to repeatedly transfer data onto newer media before the information is lost.

Glass storage could prove much more cost and time effective compared to hard disk drives, which wear out after three to five years, or magnetic tape which lasts five to seven.

In its own digital archives, for instance, Warner Bros proactively migrates content every three years to stay ahead of degradation issues.

Commenting on the successful storage of the 1978 Superman film in glass, Mark Russinovich, Microsoft Azure’s chief technology officer, said: “I’m not saying all of the questions have been fully answered, but it looks like we’re now in a phase where we’re working on refinement and experimentation, rather asking the question ‘can we do it?’”

Warner Bros, which approached Microsoft after learning of the research, said it was always on the hunt for new technologies to safeguard its vast asset library featuring historic treasures like the film Casablanca.

They had searched for a storage technology that could last hundreds of years, withstand floods or solar flares, and that doesn’t require being kept at a certain temperature or need constant refreshing.

“That had always been our beacon of hope for what we believed would be possible one day, so when we learned that Microsoft had developed this glass-based technology, we wanted to prove it out,” said Warner Bros chief technology officer Vicky Colf.

Ant Rowstron, partner deputy lab director of Microsoft Research Cambridge in the UK, which collaborated with University of Southampton to develop Project Silica, said: “We are not trying to build things that you put in your house or play movies from, we are building storage that operates at the cloud scale.

“One big thing we wanted to eliminate is this expensive cycle of moving and rewriting data to the next generation – we really want something you can put on the shelf for 50 or 100 or 1,000 years and forget about until you need it,” Rowstron added.