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Domenico Oricchio: on 8/22/14 at 10:52am UTC, wrote Congratulation for the result in the contest. I am thinking that your idea...

Jens Niemeyer: on 7/9/14 at 13:19pm UTC, wrote Rick, Thank you, this is very kind of you. I enjoyed reading your thoughts...

Rick Searle: on 7/6/14 at 2:57am UTC, wrote Hello Jens, I posted an article giving some publicity to your piece: ...

Wilhelmus Wilde: on 6/13/14 at 15:00pm UTC, wrote dear Jens, Congratulations with your place on the finalist pool. I hope...

Cristinel Stoica: on 6/11/14 at 18:45pm UTC, wrote Dear Jens, I couldn't remember, something I read as a child. If I will...

James Blodgett: on 6/7/14 at 2:18am UTC, wrote Your repository is an excellent idea. The ultimate repository would...

Jens Niemeyer: on 6/5/14 at 19:45pm UTC, wrote Cristi, Thank you! I guess most of us have had our "I wish I had backed...

Jens Niemeyer: on 6/5/14 at 19:34pm UTC, wrote Flavio, Thank you for your interesting thoughts on this subject! I share...


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October 18, 2017

CATEGORY: How Should Humanity Steer the Future? Essay Contest (2014) [back]
TOPIC: How to avoid steering blindly: The case for a robust repository of human knowledge by Jens C. Niemeyer [refresh]
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Author Jens C. Niemeyer wrote on Apr. 21, 2014 @ 15:22 GMT
Essay Abstract

Steering the future hinges on the availability of scientific and cultural data from the past. As humanity transitions into the digital age, global access to a condensed form of human knowledge becomes a realistic technological possibility and potentially a human right. At the same time, the risk of losing the vast majority of this information after a global disaster has never been greater. I argue that a collaborative effort to create a secure repository of human knowledge would not only protect humanity's cultural heritage for future generations, it could also define a minimum standard for the information that every human being should have a right to access. The basic requirements and challenges for creating the repository are discussed.

Author Bio

I am a faculty member of the Institute for Astrophysics at the University of Goettingen, Germany. My fields of research are theoretical and computational cosmology.

Download Essay PDF File

James Lee Hoover wrote on Apr. 21, 2014 @ 21:37 GMT

It seems that your assumption of a sudden cataclysmic event is your overriding concern. Certainly many future scenarios dramatize a return to a quite primitive survival. The solar flairs of the Carrington Evenent in 1859 does perhaps represent such a sudden event and its probability maybe is greater than that of an asteroid or a comet.

My scenario is that of climate change and the general inability of humankind to deal effectively with Earthly needs.

Your idea of a repository is sound and looks into assuring that knowledge is not lost, enabling decisionmaking to proceed with the latest knowledge. I'm just not sure we will have leadership with the right motives and how that can be achieved.


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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on Apr. 22, 2014 @ 10:38 GMT

I completely agree that access to information is only one piece of the puzzle, but I believe it is a necessary one and one that can (and should) be addressed as soon as possible. The issue of leadership is certainly important and highly complex - it is much harder to find consensus on the meaning of "global leadership" and on what constitutes the right motives. Obviously this doesn't mean we shouldn't work on the tough problems as well, but the one that I address seems to get a little less press coverage.

It is not only cataclysmic events that threaten the access to information by individuals. Any substantial decline in technological infrastructure, including one triggered by climate change and/or social instabilities, will suffice. In fact, just having the "wrong" kind of leadership prevents parts of the human population from getting access to essential information even now. Making sure that this cannot happen on a global scale is what concerns me.


Joe Fisher replied on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 19:15 GMT
Dear Doctor Niemayer,

I thought that your essay was quite extraordinary. Your careful analysis of the abstract effects of the abstract near, intermediate and far futures was truly inventive and showed the sharpness of your mind to good effect.


Joe Fisher

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Georgina Woodward wrote on Apr. 22, 2014 @ 00:28 GMT
Hi Jens,

I agree it is important to try to preserve knowledge for the future.Not just to preserve it but in such a way that it can be accessed and used to help mankind. It would be a terrible thing to have a new Dark Ages and have to painstakingly relearn what was lost. That might not even be possible in a post calamity world.

The Moon is not a very safe place as its often battered by asteroids and I have heard that the dust is very abrasive. Though I suppose ironically putting it somewhere out of reach of human's might be the safest place.

Good luck, Georgina

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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on Apr. 22, 2014 @ 11:02 GMT
Hi Georgina,

You are right, the lunar option is more like keeping a set of your house keys at your neighbor's place, just in case. You don't want them to be the only spare ones, but they might come in handy when you've locked yourself out. Asteroids and dust are definitely a problem, but simply maintaining any high-tech equipment on the Moon for extended periods of time is a major technological (not to mention financial) challenge, and probably will be for quite some time. Fortunately, this is not a critical ingredient for the overall idea.


Turil Sweden Cronburg wrote on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 17:29 GMT
(Note: I haven't read your essay yet, it's on my list!) Are you familiar with the Long Now Foundation?

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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 15:32 GMT

No, I hadn't been, but it looks relevant and I will certainly look into it more closely. Thanks!


Turil Sweden Cronburg wrote on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 17:30 GMT
Oh, and this global database is one of the core elements of my own architecture for a healthy system, which I've used Pascal's triangle to generate.

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Jonathan J. Dickau wrote on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 03:46 GMT
I enjoyed your essay Jens,

I also feel strongly that what you propose is something we must do, in order to preserve the continuity of human knowledge - crisis or no. Moreover; I think that all steps taken in that direction are needed and bound to be helpful in the long run. I think both a grass-roots effort and a government or corporate funded one are in order. You have my support for your project, and I can offer insights about how certain technical functionality might be implemented, but for now a comment about robustness.

Any attempt to make a truly robust repository faces the kind of human bias problem Phil Gibbs talks about in his current essay. You probably wouldn't want the same people running arXiv dot org in charge of your repository, because some essential information would be submitted but left out. And if you had an inclusive model, as with viXra dot org, some people might complain that the standards of those maintaining the repository were not sufficiently high. So a challenge would be to assure that there would be adequate peer-review and fact checking, without bias. I'll have more to say on this later.

Good Luck!


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Jonathan J. Dickau replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 02:31 GMT
It would be nice...

One imagines that a physically stable 3-d medium is the ideal long-term storage - a laser-etched crystal perhaps - where information could be inscribed in a way that allowed it to be stored without application of power for a very long time, which could be read with a simple apparatus once the crystal was created. Taking this to the next level; given more advanced technology, one could create something requiring no apparatus to decode, as it would be keyed in to the structure of the human nervous system and communicate directly - perhaps when held to one's forehead. But this is way beyond current technology.

Present day computers are way too fragile to be long-term repositories of a knowledge base. They are too dependent on a stable infrastructure and don't perform well during or after a natural disaster. They lack the EMP hardness to survive a nuclear war or a massive CME event. And they are far too easily compromised or corrupted by hack attacks, to be considered a safe or secure place to store a repository such as the one you envision. Nonetheless; they are the de-facto standard for the foreseeable future, and they are necessary tools if we hope to create a comprehensive database of knowledge.

So the duplication of effort or even competing projects could be a good thing, in this kind of endeavor, as it assures that some essential knowledge is not so easily lost.

All the Best,


p.s. - you may also enjoy my essay. - jjd

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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 16:49 GMT

Thanks very much for your comments. Both points you raised - selection bias and physical robustness - are important and unsolved so far, but not unsolvable in principle.

Selection will always be necessary (as it defines "knowledge") but it can be made partially rule-based ("semi-autonomous" in the article), which would at least make the bias transparent and therefore controllable. However, human bias is, well, only human and perhaps we should also think of it as an opportunity to start a global discussion on what we consider "essential information". There may never be a definitive answer, but I believe the process itself will already be a healthy exercise.

As for physical robustness, I think that a combination of many different technologies, including present day computers as well as more futuristic chemical, biological, or solid state storage systems, should be pursued. Redundancy will be crucial, as nature has taught us.

I will certainly read your essay, I already agree with the abstract!


Member Rick Searle wrote on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 18:46 GMT
Amazing essay, Jens.

I have been kicking around an idea for something like this for a while now:

Turil is right, the Long Now Foundation is something to keep in mind- I discuss their Rosetta Disk project in my piece at the link above.

If you ever thought this was something you would pursue in a practical sense, it would be a project I would love to be involved in and an endeavor I could see myself devoting my life to.

All the best,

Rick Searle

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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 17:07 GMT

Thank you very much for the encouragement, and especially for the link - excellent article! I only wish I had known it before I wrote mine.

If I find a good way to pursue this further, I will definitely try and keep you informed. Please let me know if you take any action or learn of other initiatives in this direction.


Member Rick Searle replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 17:28 GMT

Thanks, glad you liked my article. I really love the idea of a repository of knowledge and intend to explore what is being done and could be done over the coming year once the machine ethics book I am currently working on is done. I will certainly keep you informed.

Here is my personal email should you want to contact me:

All the best in the contest and elsewhere,


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Anonymous wrote on May. 10, 2014 @ 00:57 GMT
This is easily one of the best essays I have read, Jens. I completely agree on the importance of preserving our store of knowledge. And you do a great job in your essay of working through all the technical and social issues.

One of the things we've been doing at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute (with which I'm affiliated) is consider ways we can make human society more resilient to catastrophe. I think preserving our knowledge is second in importance only to preserving our own survival. And if we preserve our knowledge we will vastly improve our long-term chances of survival (in addition to all the other benefits of this kind of archive).

I feel the same way Rick does. This is the kind of project I would love to be able to work on someday.


Robert de Neufville

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Robert de Neufville replied on May. 11, 2014 @ 10:51 GMT
I just returned to this thread and saw that I somehow submitted my comment anonymously. I guess the system must have logged me out. So I thought I'd try to affix my name to my comment by posting again—let's see if I can get it right this time. If you get a chance to take a look at my own essay, I'd love to hear your thoughts. In any case, best of luck in the contest!


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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on May. 11, 2014 @ 15:01 GMT

Thank you for your encouraging comments, and for making me aware of the GCRI. Not sure if or how I can get engaged in a project like the one I wrote about, but it is great to get in touch with people who invest their time and efforts into these important questions. All the best!


Robert de Neufville replied on May. 12, 2014 @ 00:49 GMT
I think work like yours can begin to lay the groundwork for this kind of project. I hope you will continue to pursue the idea. And if you are at all interested in the GCRI, please stay in touch. We are always glad to connect with people whose expertise can help us think through these issues.

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Heath Rezabek wrote on May. 10, 2014 @ 02:11 GMT
Jens - Robert de Neufville pointed me to your excellent essay. (Rick, I'm glad to have found your own work this way as well.)

I feel, as you do, that comprehensive sampling and archival as an approach to mitigating existential risk (by placing a floor beneath civilization's potential or capabilities) is very important, perhaps moreso than is yet realized. I admire the multi-level approach you propose, radiating and scaling efforts out from concentrated, institutional instances to distributed, less formal instances.

This varied and scaled approach is the one I also support in my own work on this subject, a practical proposal called the Vessel project -- "vessel" in its various definitions as receptacle, container, conduit, medium. My own efforts are sketched at:

The Long Now Foundation is mentioned above -- I have been working with them as an Intern over the last year, assisting in the initial curation of a core collection for their San Francisco headquarters called the Manual for Civilization. Though it is a small first step towards comprehensive archives centered on civilization's resilience, it's a crucial one. I think a key is to encourage as many approaches to this task as possible, and to strive for hybrid vigor in a diversity of solutions deployed around the world (and beyond its surface).

I'd love to correspond further, and for us to keep one-another informed and involved as our efforts progress. The more fully such proposals and efforts become aware of one-another, the more fully we can collaborate on this type of strategic approach to existential risk.


Great to become aware of your work,

- Heath

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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on May. 11, 2014 @ 15:14 GMT

Thanks for making contact, I'd be very happy to stay in touch. I have started to read the material you've linked to and I am impressed by how much thought you and others have already put into this. Hope to be able to contribute at some point.


James A Putnam wrote on May. 12, 2014 @ 16:51 GMT
Jens C. Niemeyer,

Of all the essays that I have read thus far, yours is unique. You have increased the variety of subject matter. The contest is better for it. I enjoyed the essay. During reading it, I found myself wondering if there was information that should not be preserved? I am not suggesting a need for censorship, it is just that your essay prompted my mind to wonder in that direction. Excellent addition to the contest. Good luck to you.

James Putnam

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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on May. 16, 2014 @ 13:50 GMT

Thank you! Trying to answer your question, I believe it will be unavoidable that some (in fact, most) information won't be conserved, for purely practical reasons. Deciding which information to keep will perhaps be a never-ending challenge and dispute for humanity, but I argue that it can also be a healthy process, as it will help humanity find its common values. Of course, this process needs to be peaceful and transparent, and it must offer every human being a chance to participate.


Member Daniel Dewey wrote on May. 14, 2014 @ 11:43 GMT
Hi Jens,

I'm glad to have stumbled on this excellent essay. A couple of comments:

First, are you familiar with the Long Now Foundation? This seems like the type of project they'd be interested in.

Second, from your essay: "The repository must therefore not only be robust against man-made or natural disasters, it must also provide the means for accessing and copying digital data without computers, data connections, or even electricity."

This is an interesting requirement. Have you thought about what types of storage systems would be suitable? For example, certain kinds of paper are quite robust over long periods of time; maybe it would be possible to design a system of paper records and error-correcting codes that humans could use to reliably preserve, access, and update the data. Sounds like a cool project to me :)



Crucial Phenomena

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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on May. 16, 2014 @ 15:06 GMT

What I had in mind was a hierarchy of systems from high-technology, high-capacity data centers to long-lived low-tech, low-capacity devices along the lines of robust e-ink readers. But obviously this is a moving target with many opportunities for research. Glad you like it!

I didn't know of the Long Now Foundation when I submitted the article, but I have been made aware of it by other authors. Certainly something I will follow up.


Mohammed M. Khalil wrote on May. 14, 2014 @ 15:45 GMT
Hi Jens,

Wonderful essay! You offer convincing arguments about the importance of the repository, and I agree with you.

Best regards,


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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on May. 16, 2014 @ 15:24 GMT

Thank you for your encouragement!


Thomas Howard Ray wrote on May. 15, 2014 @ 12:42 GMT

An indexed atlas of human knowledge? -- absolutely!

Universal individual access to the common well of knowledge is really our only guarantee of individual freedom and prosperity; free thinking minds are requisite to a free people. And I particularly like your proposal for mapping the knowledge multi-dimensionally at multiple resolutions. In terms of network robustness, it corresponds with my application of multi-scale variety to economic and social systems, if one trades hierarchical system nodes for a laterally linked redundant network.

Great job, high score from me.



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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on May. 16, 2014 @ 15:31 GMT

Glad you liked the idea, thank you. And I agree that the theme of network robustness overlaps with some ideas in your article - very interesting analogy!


Ajay Bhatla wrote on May. 15, 2014 @ 15:40 GMT

I finally get to your essay and cannot believe how close it is to mine (here).

I am in total agreement with the repository concept:

- "Steering the future hinges on the availability of scientific and cultural data from the past". You seem to imply that this data be limited to those involved in "decision making" in the past. I emphasize that a part of this data (the part that describes the 'what' and not the 'why' of effect-cause natural relationships) be explicitly made available to the global public.

- Your motivation is "digital amnesia"; my motivation is enabling more people to remedy their individual life-limiting natural circumstances; We are both seeking humanity's future with benefit for the masses: you start with the masses as a unit while I am starting from the individuals that comprise the masses.

Please let me know if I understand you correctly. I am looking forward to your comments on my essay (here).

- Ajay

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Anonymous replied on May. 16, 2014 @ 16:33 GMT

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

I emphatically agree that access to the repository must not be limited to those involved in decision making. In fact, I believe that access to this condensed source of human knowledge should be considered a human right (even though I doubt that this is a realistic near-term goal). We are completely on the same side on this issue.

While I put some emphasis on digital amnesia as an existential (and avoidable) risk, I also point out that the repository would serve an important purpose as a tool for education and research in "normal" times. Again, it seems that we basically agree on the goals, starting from different motivations. This makes both of our cases stronger, I think.

I am looking forward to reading your article this weekend. Good luck!


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Ajay Bhatla replied on May. 19, 2014 @ 16:32 GMT

Glad to know we have the same goal with the individual in mind.

Glad you take my essay as encouragement! That's exactly why I wrote it.

Would appreciate any comments on that what restricts your sharing. Thank you.

The very best of luck to you too.

-- Ajay

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Eckard Blumschein wrote on May. 16, 2014 @ 06:38 GMT
Dear Jens Niemeyer,

We agree on that discoveries, inventions, and other immaterial goods are treasures that deserve to be used and to be preserved to some extent. The loss of the ancient library of Alexandria was not too bad for two reasons:

- There were books at other places too.

- New approaches led out of deadlocks.

Let's learn from human brain: Permanent selection of what is worth to be stored and forgetting of the rest is indispensable.

This contest should be understood as asking for basic questions, not just as an opportunity to justify demanding funding.

I enjoyed using Goettingen's digitalization of immature scientific work as a chance to reveal basic flaws e.g. by Georg Cantor. Therefore I appreciate the belonging funding. The chance to save treasures might be larger with redundancies and distributed locations of deposits.

Some physicists who met in Goettingen after WWII are known for their utterance concerning the topic that I dealt with in my essay. I would like to know your view too.


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KoGuan Leo wrote on May. 17, 2014 @ 10:07 GMT
Dear Prof. Niemeyer,

This repository knowledge for humanity is a necessity for our humanity. Excellent essay and I especially like what you wrote here: "Ideally, a knowledge repository should allow flexible navigation in depth and breadth at an arbitrary level of detail (“multi-resolution”) within the space of (appropriately linked) fields of knowledge (“multi-dimensional”). In other words, it should provide overlapping maps of the space of human knowledge with adjustable resolution, i.e. an atlas of knowledge space. Clearly, the atlas must continually evolve by ingesting new information and re-organizing existing correlations. This can only be achieved if the repository acquires a certain (and growing) degree of autonomy using artificial intelligence, combined with human supervision, for creating and updating maps."

Thanks for sharing your solution to us.

Best wishes,

Leo KoGuan

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Member Marc Séguin wrote on May. 17, 2014 @ 23:05 GMT

Thank you for an inspiring essay. You brilliantly made the case that digital amnesia is a real danger in case of sudden civilization decline, and that it is important to think of ways to build a robust knowledge repository that could speed up civilization's "rebirth", if the need ever arises. You also rightly mentioned that building a knowledge repository is a worthwhile endeavor by itself, even if no catastrophe ever befalls us, because of its potential for research and education.

In our hyper-connected world, we are overwhelmed by a deluge of information, and I think that in our incessant drive towards the new, we do not spend enough efforts in synthesizing the information we already know. If we want to build a compact knowledge repository, we have to prioritize, make choices, even improve the pedagogical efficiency of our best learning materials in order to ensure that we could start again by using this information.

In my essay, I proposed that we should try to put forward a worldwide futurocentric education initiative, aimed at raising the knowledge and awareness of the citizens of the world about the issues that are the most important for the future of humanity. In order for the initiative to be successful, we will need to carefully construct an optimal futurocentric curriculum: I believe there could be a lot of overlap between the content of the futurocentric curriculum and what we would preserve in a knowledge repository... so there is certainly a lot of synergy between our proposals.

How about a Futurocentric Repository and Education Initiative? I think Leibowitz would be proud! :)


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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on May. 18, 2014 @ 13:57 GMT
Sorry, Marc, I accidentally wrote my reply into a separate thread, see below.


Author Jens C. Niemeyer wrote on May. 18, 2014 @ 13:53 GMT

Thank you for your remarks and suggestions. I absolutely agree that education and conservation of knowledge are deeply linked. In fact, to some extent they depend on each other, as I also tried to explain in my article. There is indeed a lot of synergy in our ideas. I very much enjoyed reading your article (see my comments in your forum). Good luck!


Member Tommaso Bolognesi wrote on May. 19, 2014 @ 11:24 GMT
Hi Jens,

nice original ideas, well expressed, with adequate structure, and sufficiently topical - I think your essay deserves high positions in the ranking.

One aspect that could have been a bit more developed (or, that I did not grasp well enough) is this idea of `bootstrapping` after a global disaster. Is this qualitatively different from a huge data recovery process? How is this influenced by the status (in the widest sense of the word) of the `survivors`?

You also write: `until all the necessary infrastructure has been recreated to access the entire data (which might be centuries later)`. How can this process take so long? Which stages would you envisage in between? When you write `it must also provide the means for accessing and copying digital data without computers, data connections, or even electricity` what do you have in mind? New forms of stored energy that can power these systems for decades?

It occurred to me that a mention to Wolfram Alpha could have been appropriate, given its ambition to collect the body of human knowledge in a more easily accessible repository than Google.

The aspect that I found most original and stimulating is that of comparing the advanced smartest version of the repository to the human brain, with its ability to continuously store new data, integrate and learn. This scenario is perfectly in line with the complex-system-oriented vision at humanity, with the sphere of knowledge (the `noosphere`) implemented by the Web and its future versions representing the brain of the super-organism emerging from the interactions among humans and human societies. The puzzling and fascinating problem that I see, in this respect, is about the extent to which individual humans can eventually take conscious part to the super-life of the emergent super-organism (the ant-anthill duality).

Best regards


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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on May. 20, 2014 @ 19:04 GMT

Thanks, great questions! Let me try to answer some of them.

The idea of the "bootstrapping mode" is to allow the survivors of a global disaster to recover from a complete breakdown of infrastructure, in which case data recovery, education, and reconstruction of infrastructure have to go hand in hand in a highly intertwined, incremental fashion. The deeper the cultural setback, the more elementary the starting point of this process will have to be. Perhaps it must even begin with reading and writing lessons. How exactly this can be done I really don't know, it is one of the many challenges of the project.

That said, let me stress that solving the bootstrapping problem is in absolutely no way a prerequisite for working on other important aspects of the repository (although I think it's one of the most fascinating problems). And yes, Wolfram Alpha is certainly worth mentioning in this context, thanks for the reminder.

Your last point of course raises many deep questions which go far beyond the very practical purposes that I outlined. At which point the repository might reach a level of complexity that gives rise to a new form of super-organism (or even consciousness), and whether we would even notice if it did, is truly intriguing. I leave this to the experts and look forward to following the debate!


Laurence Hitterdale wrote on May. 19, 2014 @ 15:12 GMT
Hi Jens,

The repository you propose is indeed essential for a more secure human future. I believe that appropriate persons and institutions should step forward to work out the first steps that you mention at the top of page 8. We can begin now to implement your ideas.

Laurence Hitterdale

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James Lee Hoover wrote on May. 20, 2014 @ 18:50 GMT

Time grows short, so I am going back to my comments for rating. Your past response below to my questions do ring true:

"It is not only cataclysmic events that threaten the access to information by individuals. Any substantial decline in technological infrastructure, including one triggered by climate change and/or social instabilities, will suffice. In fact, just having the "wrong" kind of leadership prevents parts of the human population from getting access to essential information even now. Making sure that this cannot happen on a global scale is what concerns me."

My essay's contention does run along these lines and sees "looking beyond" our solar system and our greed concerns, as well as "looking within," our minds, the microcosm of the universe, as the solution. This while garnering leadership with reason.


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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on May. 20, 2014 @ 19:35 GMT

I finally got to read your article and commented it in your forum. Good luck!


Jonathan J. Dickau wrote on May. 21, 2014 @ 04:37 GMT
Because it pertains here also..

I am re-posting this comment I made on the essay page of Leo KoGuan, hoping it will generate some interest or discussion.

But are people ready for a scientific ethical and legal system? I have been working for a number of years now to create a framework for qualitative or subjective search engines and databases, and I've even included some of the fruits of my research in that area in my FQXi essays, so it will be clear to all that this model follows from my prior work. Personally; I'd rather work with R2-D2 and C3PO than work for a Terminator style robot, and this is a necessary step in that direction. However; if we did create this technology, and fed into the computer works of the great philosophers, religious texts, legal documents, and so on; it would calculate percentage truth-values for various assertions contained therein.

Of course; it will cause the worst scandal in history when people realize that a computer is being made the arbiter of their religion. This is why such things must be handled with some sensitivity. It is also why I think the proposal of Jens Niemeyer for a repository of knowledge is important to humanity's survival, and deserves the development and use of such technology. This goes way beyond the Dewey decimal system, and could be a way to achieve a scientific level of fair representation - which is a necessary step in your plan - but will ordinary humans be willing to set cherished beliefs aside, in order to realize a bright future instead of dystopia?

What are your thoughts, Jens?



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Lawrence B Crowell wrote on May. 21, 2014 @ 14:04 GMT
I have a much simpler way of preserving knowledge in the event of a global collapse or dark age. It is to place it on more permanent media. Probably the most durable media for preserving knowledge is the clay tablet. Archeologists manage to find these from thousands of years back. The Egyptians made steles going back to 3000BC with stone, and these are readable. Of course we don’t want to...

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Anonymous wrote on May. 23, 2014 @ 01:01 GMT
Dear Jens,

I very much enjoyed your essay and I agree with the many others who have rated it as clearly one of the best in this contest. It is also one of the few that is highly complementary to our own proposal to focus on producing better minds and thinking. I think we can create the repositories you propose with a goal of not only storing essential knowledge, but to provide the basis for a capability to use the knowledge therein most wisely and efficiently. In other words, intelligently structured knowledge repositories could be created as part of a longer-term implementation of an overall system that would include specially engineered brains and interfaces to efficiently access the knowledge. If disaster struck (and if there are survivors), the latter stages of the project would be delayed, but with your system as an initial investment, the project could be resumed as soon as the enabling technologies allowed survivors to get back on track.

As an aside, it has been proposed to store information in DNA ( and on discs with a claimed 1000 year lifespan (, but as your essay recognizes, technology to decode these storage media will have to be bootstrapped from access to other enabling information, allowing the production of the necessary decoding technologies.

Many thanks for the unique and thoughtful contribution to this contest. I hope your essay does very well.

All the best,

Preston Estep (and Alex Hoekstra)

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Preston Estep replied on May. 23, 2014 @ 01:09 GMT
The comment above somehow confused us as "Anonymous." I hope the work by us that is to be stored in your eternal database doesn't appear similarly uncredited!

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Anonymous replied on May. 25, 2014 @ 22:14 GMT
Preston, Alex,

Thank you for your interesting comments! I am aware of several proposals for ultra-long term storage, including DNA and other media that have been pointed out in other comments. While these may eventually become part of the "onion layer" structure that I propose, they might not play an essential role in the beginning of the project since they still require a lot of basic research to become useful on a massive scale. On the other hand, I believe that we can install a working system to protect and reconstruct digital information for several years after a major disaster even with existing technologies. Most of the development needed at first is software for producing the proposed "knowledge maps". Of course, research on ultra-longevity storage devices can be pursued in parallel, but we do not have to wait until they are ready for market. This is why I did not discuss them in my essay. Thanks nevertheless for the links, they are certainly relevant to the topic!


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Anonymous wrote on May. 23, 2014 @ 16:26 GMT

I disagree with the idea of half the world spending their lives chiselling data onto clay tablets, they'd never catch up! Your own ideas are much better, but with the information overload we now have I suspect the big problem will be selection!

A good essay, well written and readable if a little short, but you got the point across. While agreeing that information availability is important so a robust and extended archive library may be of use, I must ask if it has very much to do with 'steering' mankind to a better future in terms of finding a better direction and the most direct way to get there.

A rear view mirror is important of course, we need to better learn from our mistakes. Also instructions on how to rebuild after a crash, but if we steer properly perhaps we shouldn't crash. I think the niggling question I have really relates to 'renewal'. Most things in nature are cyclic, possibly even including the universe itself. Plants do better when pruned right back or re-rising from ashes. Certainly AGN's accrete and re-ionize matter.

Do you not agree that much of what we think we 'know' is nonsense (I agree with Einstein about not understanding 1,000th of 1%) so would nor perhaps any humanity surviving a cataclysm be better off with a fresh start, unencumbered by ancient beliefs!?

A nicely written and argued essay in any event, and an original view and topic. I point to a far more direct leap forward in my own. Of course actually getting man to let go of myth and legend and take that leap is another matter! I hope you can get to it. What I have done is sent Bob and Alice instructions to eject the the science database I discuss in capsules, one in the halo to avoid accretion by our AGN next time around! (but that's another paper).

Best wishes, and best of luck in the coming roller coaster run in!


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Peter Jackson replied on May. 23, 2014 @ 16:29 GMT

I see the new server's inherited the old one's bad habits. T'was I.


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Aaron M. Feeney wrote on May. 24, 2014 @ 23:03 GMT
Hi Jens,

You present a series of excellent ideas, and I would be happy to see you win the whole contest. It is clearly vital that we ensure that future generations have access to current knowledge.

I advocate in my article that we also develop the technology that would be necessary to access the kinds of information that nature might allow us to access from the future. I derive the operational characteristics of a useful and logically possible kind of future-viewing machine, after showing that a certain naive kind of future-viewing machine is logically impossible. Once something is shown to be logically possible, it at least has a chance of being physically possible. Near the end of my paper, and in technical note ten, I discuss some of the benefits of having a "foreknowledge machine." You may find my article interesting.

Best of luck!



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Israel Perez wrote on May. 24, 2014 @ 23:41 GMT
Dear Jens

I like your essay, it is well written, organized and easy to read. Your ideas are clear and fluent. The idea is original and appears to be a good idea for a united world. However, I see some inconveniences that may not help to achieve the goal you pursue.

First thing. Not all knowledge should be made public. For obvious reasons.

The second is that knowledge has different levels and it won't be interesting for an advanced reader, to read introductory knowledge. And similarly, beginners will not understand advanced knowledge.

So, knowledge must be divided according to needs and levels.

Wikipedia is introductory and intermediate level. Schoolarpedia is for advanced readers.

The other problem is how to store all this knowledge. We now have the fortune of storing massive knowledge in magnetic form, but as far as I know, magnetic information cannot be stored for centuries. Magnetism is naturally lost after about 8 o 10 decades. Knowledge engraved in a stone last much longer than any other mother method.

In your essay, you mention that: The repository must therefore not only be robust against man-made or natural disasters, it must also provide the means for accessing and copying digital data without computers, data connections, or even electricity.

Do you have an specific idea on how to store massive knowledge other than magnetic tapes?

Thanks in advance. I'd like to take the opportunity to invite you to read essay and comment on my thread. There I discuss what should be the ideal that should steer the future and discuss our major problems.

Best Regards


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Anonymous replied on May. 25, 2014 @ 23:06 GMT

Good points! Let me try to address them one by one.

Certainly not all knowledge should be made public (for reasons that we probably agree upon), but I believe that some "core knowledge" (science, history etc.) and cultural data (art, music etc.) must be accessible by every human being. Not everybody will agree, but this is what I think we must work toward.

Your second point pretty much reflects what I meant to capture with "multi-dimensional, multi-resolution maps". Just storing data will not be sufficient, we must also provide useful pathways for reaching any given point in knowledge space from different starting conditions (i.e., background knowledge). You are absolutely right.

Magnetic tapes could still be used in the inner layers of the "onion skin" structure where the infrastructure (including power supply) is heavily protected, at least for several years. As I already mentioned in another reply above, I think that ultra-long term storage for centuries and beyond, while interesting and important in the long run, is not a primary problem and shouldn't keep us from setting up the repository as soon as possible.

Thanks, and good luck!


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Israel Perez replied on May. 26, 2014 @ 05:02 GMT
Dear Jens

If I understand well, your storage onion is planned to work for a few years just in case of a global catastrophe. But not for decades or centuries.

That's fine. Well, we have to work out the details and improve your proposal.

Good luck!

Best Regards


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Wilhelmus de Wilde wrote on May. 25, 2014 @ 15:27 GMT
Dear Jens,

your essay is really pointing out the importance of the time-life line we are aware of as our reality. If there were no other "pasts" avaialble you were right, however in my perception it is not only the future that can be "steered" but also the "past", because I observe thapast as just one of the infinite number of "available" pasts.

Maybe you can spend some time to read my essay : "STEERING THE FUTURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS", and perhaps you will be able to leave a comment on my thread. I also would be obliged if you gave it a rating that is in accordance with your appreciation.

best regards


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Anonymous wrote on May. 26, 2014 @ 13:27 GMT
Dear Jens,

Having a robust backup of the internet is a good idea, and you explained it so clearly that few people can criticize it.

Have you heard of Open-sourced blueprints for civilization ? They are working on a Global Village Construction Set (GVCS) -- a modular, DIY, low-cost, high-performance platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial...

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James Dunn wrote on May. 28, 2014 @ 13:41 GMT
Your essay doesn't address steering the future of humanity.

However !!!!!!!!!

You cite an important part for the sustainability of humanity. I would like to include your insights in a broader development outside of these essays.

Staged Peer Review with Business Incubator

The collective efforts of many of the essays provide a means to steer the future, but no one essay I have read can steer the future on their own merit. As with all control systems, a collection of perspectives are necessary to implement intelligent control.

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James Dunn replied on May. 28, 2014 @ 14:07 GMT
If you have elected evidence-based qualified doctors of philosophy (ethics) and science (technology development) develop technologies and manage the use of the data collected by the NSA, then an ethical global repository that includes all sensitive data "encrypted by-parts" provides the means to ethically store a complete archive of human knowledge.

retweet: Part of Civil Rights is that Representation is free of Treason

Currently the NSA is in great turmoil as corporations are applying pressure to provide corporation managed ethical oversight; to me this translates to providing an entrenched system of corruption and treason.

However, if an elected Representation manages the NSA then corruption and treason of all our Representatives can be exposed. To manipulate stuffing of ballot boxes is Treason.

Collection of ALL information is not currently feasible, diverse types of information are in continuous creation. The bandwidth alone would be a significant challenge as researchers world-wide are collecting raw data and processing diverse relationships and related results.

With the advent of quantum physics, infinite memory is feasible in the foreseeable future. But not likely implemented within our lifetimes unless a breakthrough occurs related to "Non-relativistic Quantum Entanglement"; i.e. the mathematics example of imaginary numbers in physical causality.

So what your essay proposed is feasible, but is part of a larger system needed to steer the future of humanity.

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Judy Nabb wrote on May. 29, 2014 @ 08:19 GMT
Dear Jens

I must agree with some of the comments above that you don't address the important issue of the subject, how and in what direction to advance from our current position. I even find it slightly disturbing that a topic with such potential should be led by such an inward looking proposition.

I haven't seen you try to defend that suggestion. I've suggested far better use of our brains is possible and required to better understand our place in the universe and how it works, and improve our state. Your essay is nicely written but luckily doesn't need a high score from me on content.


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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on May. 29, 2014 @ 13:54 GMT

I have tried to make a small but practical contribution to the "how" to steer, not the "where". True, providing a ship's crew with accurate charts may not be sufficient to help them find their course, but it is certainly necessary. It will help them not to run aground wherever they might choose to go.


Donald C Barker replied on May. 29, 2014 @ 23:50 GMT
Hello Jens,

Very interesting ideas here, though with your last comment, I am of a mind that you cant just separate the "How" and "Where" of steering our future if we want both knowledge and species survival. My essay addresses the survival, but in other papers I have worked, I have addressed the backing up of both knowledge and biodiversity samples (e.g., 4 or 5 seed banks around the world) on Mars. Both of which would be readily available to be interfaced with an active Earth or reintroduced to a seriously damaged Earth.

Keep up the good work.


Donald Barker

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Member Tejinder Pal Singh wrote on May. 29, 2014 @ 16:16 GMT
Dear Dr. Niemeyer,

You have an excellent essay. My compliments. Your proposal should definitely be one of the key aspects of a multi-faceted steering strategy.

Best regards,


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Ray Luechtefeld wrote on May. 29, 2014 @ 17:26 GMT
Hi Jens,

Thanks for the interesting essay. I found that it resonated with my essay on computationally intelligent personal dialogic agents.

I'd appreciate a rating, if you can do that, since I am a bit short on ratings.

It is interesting that there seems to be a focus on declarative ("the grass is green") rather than procedural ("here are the steps to building a birdhouse") knowledge.

I have used the prototype of the system discussed in my essay to deliver procedural knowledge in the moment of action to groups of students working on a project. Some of the concerns you raised in your essay are important to the further development of a dialogic system.



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Gyenge Valeria wrote on May. 29, 2014 @ 19:33 GMT
Dear Jens!

I keep, your crucial proposal written in your essay to think over seriously! Your essay well thought out, so it deserves high score truly.

However, as my essay points out to that - there may be already simulations in running which are not based on technologies we are trying to reconstruct and probably overcome by our contemporary computer technologies.


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Anonymous wrote on May. 30, 2014 @ 04:28 GMT
Dear Jens,

thank you for your neat essay. I support your idea of a `repository' as I, as many others do, believe that we are on the verge of an unprecedented ecological crisis, which could well destroy our current civilization. Such an event has the power of annihilating most of our knowledge, in particular because our knowledge has never been so fragile. To speak about a field of which I...

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Member Flavio Mercati replied on May. 30, 2014 @ 04:29 GMT
whoops I resulted as `anonymous'... it's me anyway


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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on Jun. 5, 2014 @ 19:34 GMT

Thank you for your interesting thoughts on this subject! I share your bias (and profession), so it isn't hard for me to agree on all accounts. Was the scientific method discovered independently in China? In any case, methods for (re)discovering information should take high priority in the repository (and perhaps preference over the information itself), as they represent, to a certain extent, a compressed version of the information. Very good point!


Denis Frith wrote on May. 30, 2014 @ 13:02 GMT
Society is very dependent on the services provided by the infrastructure of civilization. There is little that people can do without the energy enabling communication and many other facets (fuels for transport, potable water supply, etc)of industrialization. Humanity will have to steer the future of this infrastructure if future generations are to enjoy some of these services.

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Michael Allan wrote on May. 31, 2014 @ 11:01 GMT
Hello Jens, May I post a short, but sincere critique of your essay? I'd ask you to return the favour. Here's my policy on that. - Mike

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Janko Kokosar wrote on Jun. 1, 2014 @ 14:43 GMT
Dear Mr. Jens Niemeyer

I have some ideas for repository systems. It should be based on biological principles, as DNA replication, or on the principle of internet that it is stored in multiple locations. The practical realisation of such principle would be to store random parts of knowledge on a part of disk on every sold computer, or still better on a new, non active disk on a computer. When a disaster will happen, some of those computers will survive and they can behave like servers for new internet. Of course, this needs a calculation how much computers we need for such storage. Probably it is not enough space, but after catastrophe some knowledge will remain. Even, every computer drive or flash drive can be filled with such data and after being filled with data the data can be partially deleted. It is not necessary that the sold drives are empty.

Such approach will also enable some browsing on computer, although web will not be accessible.

Other possibility is to built one center on a moon, which will survive even in a case on nuclear war on earth. But this is not so easy feasible than the above model.

The next big question is organization of such knowledge. One help is to make knowledge to the final form from working form. For instance, when the theory of everything (TOE) will be found, it can be (maybe) written on a t-shirt. Thus much knowledge, how to obtain TOE, and many speculations will not be so necessary. The hierarchy and organization of all such knowledge will also be beneficial as new knowledge. On the other side, how to present knowledge is also a not finished story. For instance, I claim that special relativity is not yet presented clearly enough.

These ideas are obtained in one hour and if thorough reflection will not completely delete them, it will be a success.

My essay

Best regards

Janko Kokosar

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Jayakar Johnson Joseph wrote on Jun. 2, 2014 @ 04:57 GMT
Dear Jens,

Real-time observation-data of the universe in a holarchical reference time scale, is the most essential data to be conserved in 'Living Earth Simulator Project' to implement a continuous control strategy with Virtual real-time data as the reference data, for environmental regulations.

With best regards,


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Denis Frith wrote on Jun. 2, 2014 @ 07:01 GMT

As you point out, the acquisition, retention and usage of knowledge is a very important aspect of steering the future. But steering the future involves making the best possible use of the remaining natural resources for the operation and maintenance of the aging infrastructure. For example, what use will the knowledge about how to build, operate and pilot airliners be when they are no longer a viable operation due to lack of fuel and materials.

The useful knowledge will be that which steers the future operation of the aging infrastructure. I propose in my essay that the ELAM movement should sponsor the acquisition of such useful knowledge.



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Cristinel Stoica wrote on Jun. 5, 2014 @ 19:20 GMT
Dear Jens,

I agree that a repository is necessary for humanity, and you explain this so eloquently in your well-written essay. (I lost in several occasions data that was very important to me, and now I use regularly source control (even for articles) and make backups. I have a friend who works with financial data, and backs it up on multiple drives, in multiple places, including at a bank.) I liked "A Canticle for Leibowitz", but I also remember reading long time ago a short story in which our civilization ends, and some other civilization (I don't recall if from another planet, or a future civilization on earth) founds only a Mickey Mouse cartoon, which makes them very confuse. Great essay, and good luck with the contest!

Best regards,


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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on Jun. 5, 2014 @ 19:45 GMT

Thank you! I guess most of us have had our "I wish I had backed this up" moments. We also have to store our scientific data (used for publications) for a certain amount of time, which creates the non-trivial question which data is actually relevant for the obtained results...anyway, if you remember the name of the story with the cartoon from the past, please let me know!


Cristinel Stoica replied on Jun. 11, 2014 @ 18:45 GMT
Dear Jens,

I couldn't remember, something I read as a child. If I will remember, I will tell you. Until then, check this out.

Best regards,


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James Blodgett wrote on Jun. 7, 2014 @ 02:18 GMT
Your repository is an excellent idea. The ultimate repository would include a backup for the readers, i.e. the human species.

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Wilhelmus de Wilde wrote on Jun. 13, 2014 @ 15:00 GMT
dear Jens,

Congratulations with your place on the finalist pool.

I hope that the discussions will proceed so herewith I sent you the link to my essay : "STEERING THE FUTURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS" and hope for your comment.

good luck with the judges


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Member Rick Searle wrote on Jul. 6, 2014 @ 02:57 GMT
Hello Jens,

I posted an article giving some publicity to your piece:

rats on being a finalist!

Rick Searle

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Author Jens C. Niemeyer replied on Jul. 9, 2014 @ 13:19 GMT

Thank you, this is very kind of you. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on these articles.


Domenico Oricchio wrote on Aug. 22, 2014 @ 10:52 GMT
Congratulation for the result in the contest.

I am thinking that your idea is a beautiful idea for a long term prevervation of human knowledge.

I am thinking that a similar idea was the Library of Alexandria, that we have lost forever, so that it is not possible to evaluate each future possible disaster.

The current nearest project is Wikipedia (the different languages could be the Rosetta Stone in the future) but the original documents are not ever linked (the documents are not ever open), but a link between Wikipedia and the Google Book project could collect the whole human knowledge (until the end of the copyright); I see only two problems, the intellectual property of the scientific document (I don't know now if there is an end of the copyright for these documents) and the aging of the electronic support (what is the life of a dvd, a hard drive, a operating system, a reading software?); a solution can be to use different supports, and software, and operating system, so that the different technologies can have different lifetimes, so that can be possible to change the support that it is less reliable after an automatic control with comparison between different supports and technologies.

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