What if we could listen to Socrates today? Or see a live talk from Plato? Though we will never be able to do this, we can start transmitting today’s heritage to societies thousands of years into the future. A radically new approach is required, as our current digital storage devices quickly become obsolete, and involve huge amounts of energy to maintain. We also need to understand how to communicate with far future generations.
Taking up the challenge with a sustainable perspective, the EPFL+ECAL Lab presents Álfar: a capsule to store our heritage for thousands of years on DNA.
The technological process transforms the binary code of digital archives into the four bases of DNA. The resulting synthetic DNA molecule is stable over time, doesn’t require energy to maintain, and is 200,000 times more dense than traditional digital storage. It has the potential to revolutionise the way we keep information, from large databases to invaluable cultural heritage.
While several labs have worked on optimizing this scientific perspective, the EPFL+ECAL Lab, in collaboration with EPFL, has developed a tangible object to hold this DNA over thousands of years. Beyond the technical challenge, this design research questions fundamental issues: how can an object maintain its status over such a long time? How can we communicate its content? How will future generations find meaning within it?
Working with designers, artists, anthropologists and engineers, the EPFL+ECAL Lab presents a first capsule to carry our memories for millennia. Named Álfar, this DNA storage object will allow cultural and private institutions to keep precious archives alive for generations to come. Using nano-engraving and simple ocular techniques, the object gives visual previews of the rich content that lies within it.
Combining prospective design, semiotics and material research, this work proposes an outcome designed to withstand environmental and societal changes over the next two thousand years. It also comprises an interactive installation dedicated to assess human perception of the proposal, through research protocols in user experience psychology and design fiction.
Álfar was unveiled during the Verbier Art Summit 2022 Edition entitled “Resource Hungry”. On June 27 2022, the research project was presented at the Design Research Society conference in Bilbao as a full paper.