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The Universal Virtual Computer

Proponents of emulation and encapsulation are thinking the wrong way, Lorie believes. Packaging complex data with the software needed to read it is too complicated, he thinks, and saving data in simple formats and trusting that someone a century hence will still be able to decode them is too risky. Instead, he’s building a universal decoding machine-a primitive program that would begin working behind the scenes to preserve a digital thing as soon as it was created-and proposing that it be promulgated so widely that it would become an inextricable part of our culture, like copies of the Bible or the U.S. Constitution. This program would be written in a simple machine language; it could be used to unlock files and to run application software even after the formats in which the files are stored grow obsolete; and most important, it wouldn’t require any particular foresight about which things should be saved.

Lorie believes that this program, which he calls the universal virtual computer, should be constructed independently of any existing hardware or software, so that it is independent, too, of time. It would simulate the same basic architecture that every computer has had since the beginning: memory, a sequence of registers, and rules for how to move information among them. Computer users could create and save digital files using the application software of their choice; when a digital file was saved, though, it would also be backed up in a file that could be read by the universal computer. When someone wanted to read the file in the future, only a single emulation layer-between the universal virtual computer and the computer of that time-would be needed to access it.

“Ray’s suggested universal virtual computer is a good idea,” comments Rand’s Rothenberg. In fact, he says it’s one possible version of a concept he has been developing himself, something called the “emulation virtual machine.” Rothenberg’s machine would be a universal platform for emulating obsolete computers, which could then run obsolete software to render obsolete digital objects. Lorie’s solution, Rothenberg says, is similar in spirit but “far less general.”

Lorie, however, believes in keeping things simple-so simple, in fact, that he wants to fit the specifications for his universal computer into only 10 to 20 pages of text, which could be distributed via the Web and copied out on paper everywhere, assuring their survival. “Saving one single paper document allows us to save millions of documents around the world,” he says.

Will it work? Last September Lorie demonstrated his approach at the National Library of the Netherlands, successfully translating a PDF version of a scientific paper on drug research into his universal format. The reconstruction not only kept the look of the original’s fonts and formatting, it also created “metadata” to clue in future users about its content.

In addition to text files, Lorie’s approach could also be used to save today’s digital photographs, sound and video files, and software applications for future generations; the content or software need only be described and saved in a way that is compatible with the universal computer. But he believes that the ability to decode today’s data files will be far more valuable than the ability to run old software. Imagine, for example, being able to view data not just with today’s visualization tools but in ways that won’t be invented for another hundred years. “It’s not just that you want to save the document,” he explains. “You want to make the data within the document available to whatever new programs we may have in the future.”

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