We might see information as immaterial, but in a few centuries, the total amount of digital bits generated per year by humanity could exceed the number of atoms on our planet and be responsible for half of its mass.
Anyway, those are the conclusions of mind-blowing new research that analyzed the increase of data over time and its potentially disastrous consequences.
Information as Mass
We live in times filled with information: cell phones are everywhere, and high social media use suggests that almost every human being is producing extreme quantities of computerized content each day.
IBM and other technology research companies have calculated that about 90 percent of the world’s current data was created in the last decade only, making physicist Melvin Vopson of the University of Portsmouth in England wonder where we might be in a few years.
His investigations began with the fact that Earth currently has almost 10^21, or 100 billion billion of bits of computer information.
“This is everything we collectively do,” Vopson said. “Any digital content produced and stored anywhere on the planet by anyone.”
Vopson then estimated how much more data might be produced in the future. Assuming a 20 percent annual growth rate in digital content, the researcher showed that 350 years from now, the number of data bits on our planet will be bigger than all the atoms inside it, of which there are around 10^50 or a hundred trillion trillion trillion trillion. Even before data reaches these numbers, humanity would be using the equivalent of its current power consumption to support all these zeros and ones.
“The question is: Where do we store this information? How do we power this?” Vopson said. “I call this the invisible crisis, as today it is truly an invisible problem.”
A Link Between Information and Energy
Although such timescales might appear to be too far in the future to ignore the present, Vopson also cautioned of another possible concern. Back in 1961, German-American physicist Rolf Landauer suggested that, due to the fact that erasing a digital bit generates a small amount of heat, there’s a correlation between information and energy.
While still a matter of scientific debate, this discovery, known as Landauer’s principle, has gotten some experimental verification in the last few years. In 2019, a study published in the journal AIP Advances, Vopson implied that there might indeed be a link between information and mass.
The premise relies on the renowned equation E = mc^2, derived by Albert Einstein in the 20th century. Einstein’s work said that energy and mass are interchangeable, making Vopson calculate the potential mass of a single bit of information – approximately 10 million times tinier than an electron.
The means that the current mass of information created every year is rather trivial, about the weight of a single E. coli bacteria, according to Vopson. However, considering the same 20 percent increase per year, half of Earth’s mass could be transformed into digital data in less than 500 years. Assuming a 50 percent growth rate, half the planet would be information by the year 2245.
“I see this as a real problem,” Vopson said. “Just [like] burning fossil fuels, plastic pollution, and deforestation, I think the information is something overlooked by everyone. We are literally changing the planet bit-by-bit.”
As a matter of fact, he says the growth rates are rather conservative, and this information disaster might take place sooner than predicted. A method to mitigate the issue of storing such massive amounts of data might be to allegedly build technology that would keep information in non-material conditions, such as holograms, the egghead says.
Not everyone agrees with these results as the concept that information has mass is still theoretical and will require clever experiments to prove it.
“I think there are a lot more important problems than this one,” particle physicist Luis Herrera of the University of Salamanca in Spain, said.
Vopson’s findings were published in the same journal as the 2019 study, AIP Advances.