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If modern civilisations were to fall in the same manner as ancient Egypt, would future generations be able to figure out the basics of our languages? The discovery of the Rosetta Stone provided the key to unlocking the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs. But modern writing is largely on paper or computer disks, which do not have the lifetime of stone.

Influential tech-geek/journalist Kevin Kelly has a fascinating rundown on how the Long Now Foundation addressed this problem, with their ‘Modern Rosetta Stone’:

During a Long Now field trip to a southwest archaeological site, the idea of a modern Rosetta Stone came up — a backup of human languages that future generations might cherish. At a winter retreat in 1999, Long Now board member Doug Carlston suggested that for the parallel common text of this modern Rosetta Stone we should use the book of Genesis, since it was most likely already translated into all languages already. We hatched a plan to produce a 3-inch non-corroding disk which contained at least 1,000 translations of Genesis and other linguistic information about each language.

Following the archiving principle of LOCKS (Lots of Copies Keep ’em Safe) we would replicate the disk promiscuously and distribute them around the world with built in magnifiers. This project in long term thinking would do two things: it would showcase this new long-term storage technology, and it would give the world a minimal backup of human languages. We thought it might take a year to do.

Long story short, it took eight years. Last night at a ceremony at the Long Now museum in Fort Mason, one of five prototype disks Rosetta disk was presented to the Oliver Wilke Foundation, a Frankfurt-based linguistic center, who help support the project.

Check out Kelly’s article for more details of this fascinating project. Also pretty cool is this tidbit of information regarding an earlier prototype, which is the stuff science fiction books are made of:

But it was not the very first disk. That one is in space. In 2004 the Rosetta Space Probe was launched by the European Space Agency. This small craft was created to land on a comet in 2014. Before it blasted off, the ESA contacted us because we share names. They asked if we’d like to mount a version of the disk on their probe. Of course we would! We had manufactured a pure nickel disc with a subset of 6,000 pages of language translations, which was mounted on the payload section of the probe.

So assuming the mission continues well, in 2014 the Rosetta Probe will land on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, where it will measure the comet’s molecular composition. Then it will remain at rest as the comet orbits the sun for hundreds of millions of years. So somewhere in the solar system, where it is safe but hard to reach, a backup sample of human languages is stored, in case we need one.

Or perhaps, not so much fiction. Who knows what’s out there orbiting our Sun, unbeknownst to us…