Microsoft at work on delayed-delivery e-mail

SEATTLE - Every so often a letter or package becomes an unintended capsule, inexplicably arriving years or decades after it was mailed. Now some Microsoft researchers are looking into making that happen digitally - by design.

The "immortal computing" project, as described Monday in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, involves storage of e-mail or other digital material in physical artifacts and other forms that could be preserved and revealed in future decades or centuries.

"Maybe we should start thinking as a civilization about creating our Rosetta stones now, along with lots of information, even going beyond personal memories into civilization memories," said Eric Horvitz, a principal researcher on the project.

From the departed

On a more personal scale, individuals could store messages to descendants, information about their lives or interactive holograms of themselves for viewing at their gravesites.

"The whole reason to go to a cemetery could be transformed," Horvitz said. "The idea of a locus in physical space where this information exists ... makes that much more of a meaningful location to actually travel to."

Such concepts are outlined in a patent application that was filed in June 2005 and made public this month, the newspaper reported.

At the heart of the project is the concern that large amounts of information, valuable and otherwise, are stored in forms with limited life spans and in formats that could quickly become obsolete. Remember floppy disks? Notice how fast movie videocassettes are being replaced by DVDs?

The Post-Intelligencer reported that the project was inspired by such musings from Andy Wilson, a Microsoft researcher.

"It is definitely a long-term project," Wilson said.

The result is far from certain. Some Microsoft research projects have led to products or been a factor in development, but others have wound up as dead ends.

Durable data storage

The patent filing covers issues such as the potential use of durable data storage, for example advanced imaging techniques, to assure that the data survive over time. One key is to avoid storage devices with movable - and potentially breakable - internal parts.

The stored information then could be retrieved through a separate interface independent of the artifact, partly so the display method could evolve with changing technology. Whoever stores the information could determine when and to whom it would be disclosed, using such codes as DNA or biometrics.

Another facet is to design the artifacts so that the process of accessing the information is "self-revealing" through instructions in multiple languages, hieroglyphics or other code. In the 1970s, for example, symbolic instructions showed how to build a player for the Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft, which contained greetings in various languages.

More than a decade ago, with a similar goal, the Handle System was established to assign unique identifiers that, unlike standard Internet addresses, can be used to find online information and media even if they're later moved.

That system arose from the work of Bob Kahn, a technology pioneer who was responsible for system design of the Arpanet, the forerunner to he Internet. He said he was happy to see Microsoft's interest in further steps.

"More and more information is being generated, and everybody, whether it's a corporation or individual, from time to time wants to go back and find something and they don't know where to look," Kahn said. "I think there's a generic issue here that's really important for the future."

Others suggested there could be a concern if the results of Microsoft's efforts are entirely proprietary.

"If they feel like they have to patent it in order to pursue it, I guess that's a business decision they have to make," said Mark Anderson, publisher of the Strategic News Service technology newsletter, "but I would hope they wouldn't try and do it in a way which would preclude others doing the same thing."