The 1 Terabyte Miracle

By Michael S. Malone.  Forget the microprocessor.  Forget the PC or the Web.  The greatest technological miracle of our time is memory.  I can remember being solemnly told, as far back as 1980, that digital revolution would soon slow, not because of limits on Moore’s Law, but because there was simply no way that advancements in memory storage could ever hope to keep up — semiconductor memory would never have sufficient capacity to keep up with processor demands, and disk drives, being mechanical, would soon run into insurmountable physical barriers.

And yet, here we are.  Through extraordinary commitment, imagination, and a clever hopping back and forth between different media, memory has somehow kept up the pace . . .and the men and women who did it are the unsung heroes of the electronics age.

That brings us to a new technical paper tucked sway in “Optics InfoBase”, a journal of The Optical Society of America.  Written by four scientists, it bears the obscure title of “Terabyte recorded in two-photon 3D disk”.  But within that title lies whole new worlds.

Technically, what these four scientists have done is quite extraordinary:  they’ve taken a standard 5GB DVD form factor and reduced that memory storage to a very thin film — and then stacked 200 of these layers into the same thickness, creating an addressable 3 dimensional memory.  The result is a DVD sized disk that contains 1 trillion bytes (terabytes) of data.  And that’s just the beginning, because their initial experiments with new materials and Blu-ray densities, suggests the potential for 5 Tb disks — all stuffed into the same form factor of a standard computer memory DVD.

The obvious appeal of this breakthrough is that it offers the possibility of a radical increase in memory in the same slot on our laptop computers.  But it is much more than that:  something revolutionary happens when consumer memory crosses the 1Tb barrier.   Suddenly, almost every form of creative content — music, movies, television, books — becomes firmware.  When your iPod can hold essentially every television show ever broadcast, or every book ever published, or every song ever recorded, the notion of ‘downloading’ content becomes nearly obsolete — instead, it will likely come already loaded into the device.

The implications of this omni-availability of content are stunning.  Remember that IBM commercial with the desk clerk in the ratty motel telling the weary businessman that the place offers “every movie ever made”.   Well, that’s what the terabyte world looks like — and this technical paper has moved that world a whole lot nearer.  Needless to say, it will also transform, even destroy, numerous industries from cable television to music . . .indeed, almost every industry that rests upon the idea of content scarcity.  At the same time, it will place unprecedented value on new content, and handsomely reward its creators.

 That’s what the Memory folks have now brought us to the brink of.  Read the paper:  it’s not often you get to see a miracle as it unfolds.