Will CDs be decodable in years to come?

23 September 2012

Question

Hi Dr Chris,
I am curious to know if the naked scientists think we would be able to read data information on a CD, DVD, or hard-disc etc if we had advanced technology but no historical records of the code or computer language the data is written in.
For example if our civilisation had some sort of EMP apocalypse and rendered all our electronics exposed to it useless, or our civilisation regressed and then advanced again but with slightly different technology, or an intelligent alien race found our data would they be able to even recognise it as data storage. With the advent of the electronic book I wonder if we'll lose everything if we don't just print it in a basic form that we can retrieve but also I guess I'm thinking about my backups generally, and redundancy in all kinds of file types! Cheers PS love the podcasts!
@sjcaffyn
Steve

Answer

Dave - This is assuming that you've got the device, it's still in perfectly working order and if you have the thing to read it, it would be perfectly fine, but would've lost all those - could you work out what was on it in the first place? I think different ones have different difficulty. Something like a CD, which is of course 1980s or 1970s technology, if you looked at it with an electron microscope, you'd see lots of little pits on it and if you can go through those pits, they represent lots of ones and noughts and there's not a lot of compression, certainly with an audio CD, and therefore, I would've thought that if you had some idea that there was some data on there and you had to look for it, if you are a bright bloke and you're the kind of person who hangs out in the computer science department, you'd be able to work out what was on it. Whereas, if you're talking about something which was really heavily compressed like an mp3, then you're going to have to know more about how it was encoded to be able to decode it. You don't just have a series of numbers which indicate how loud the sound is. So, you're going to have to work out a lot more. I'm not saying that we couldn't do it, but it will be a lot more hard work.

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