New Microsoft trial sees health data encoded in a piece of glass

2 Jun 2021

Luke Hares, chief technology officer of CMR. Image: CMR Surgical

As part of the tech giant’s Project Silica, data from a surgical robotics company was stored on a piece of glass roughly the size of a drink coaster.

CMR Surgical, the UK medtech company behind the Versius surgical robot, has teamed up with Microsoft for what it describes as a “world first for health data”.

The companies have worked together to store clinical health data from Versius procedures on a small glass platter.

This proof-of-concept platter – which measures 75mm by 75mm – is a new long-term archive storage technology being developed as part of Microsoft’s Project Silica. This research project is using recent discoveries in ultrafast laser optics and artificial intelligence to encode data in quartz glass.

CMR said Versius, its surgical robotic system for minimal-access (or keyhole) surgeries, collects large amounts of anonymised data. Long-term archival storage could enable the preservation of surgery data including procedural videos and telemetric data, it added, which could be harnessed for future training and clinical study.

“Through this exciting trial with Microsoft, CMR has the opportunity to use a groundbreaking technology of the future to store a vast amount of clinical data safely and securely,” said Luke Hares, chief technology officer of CMR.

“This is important as collecting data across surgical practice will enable us to learn critical insights over time and realise our mission to make minimal-access surgery available to everyone who could benefit.”

Jurgen Willis, VP of programme management at Microsoft, added that working with CMR could help Project Silica learn more about long-term archival storage needs within the healthcare market specifically.

“Long-term medical archival data can improve medical record management, enabling healthcare companies to help their patients more effectively,” he said.

What is Project Silica?

Project Silica is a research initiative from Microsoft that aims to rethink traditional storage systems.

A laser encodes data in glass by creating layers of 3D nanoscale gratings and deformations. Machine learning algorithms can then read the data back by decoding the images and patterns that are created as polarised light shines through the glass.

Glass is used as it is not affected by electromagnetic pulses or water damage and it is resilient against heat and abrasion. So once data is encoded inside the glass, it could survive for tens of thousands of years without the data decaying.

The first proof-of-concept test of this technology in 2019 saw Microsoft store and retrieve the entire 1978 Superman film on a piece of glass roughly the size of a drink coaster.

Sarah Harford was sub-editor of Silicon Republic