Joel Beckmeyer's Homepage

The Generation Ship Problem

After talking about the hardware and software problems of digital permanence, I’m struck by a classical Sci-Fi motif with a conundrum: the Generation Ship; a ship outfitted with all of the technology, infrastructure, and storage to support lightyear-scale human travel.

But what about that technology on the ship? If we build one of these ships, we need to accomplish one of several things in regards to information storage:

1. Innovate to the point where the lifetime of the storage devices is able to support lightyear scale travel.

That’s a tall order, given where we are right now with physical storage devices. As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, the average lifetime of physical storage devices is less than 100 years, no matter if it is a hard drive, solid-state drive, etc.

2. Provide the facility to create new storage devices to replace the failing old ones.

Again, in my mind a tall order, since it would require facilities on the ship to create storage devices. The problem of having materials is at least solvable by just sending the ship with all of the materials it needs in advance.

3. Provide the facility to revitalize storage devices.

One of the main reasons I’m even thinking about this is because I’m an individual with limited resources. Accordingly, I think about things in terms of broken/working, on/off, etc. With enough resources, there is a much larger chance of being able to repair, re-purpose, and otherwise revitalize storage devices, increasing their lifetime. E.g., if the only failure in the hard drive is the control circuit, that is an “easy enough” repair.

I like to toy with the idea of a generation ship a lot in my head, but I think it’s really fun to think about the technical possibilities and needs of a ship like this.