Digital data could overtake Earth’s actual atoms, physicist says

Might we be changing our planet to information?


As I write this, the dear metals and fossil fuels used to create and energy the server farms and different infrastructure that can finally blast these phrases onto your retinas are being transformed to data. Ultimately all these digital bits will truly outnumber all of the atoms on Earth, in accordance with one theoretical physicist.

“We are actually altering the planet little by little and it’s an invisible disaster,” Melvin Vopson, who lectures on the College of Portsmouth within the UK, mentioned in a release

Vopson is not simply speaking about how all our digital expertise makes use of up pure sources and creates planet-warming greenhouse fuel emissions, though he notes that’s taking place too. As an alternative, he calculates that as the quantity of digital bits we create continues to develop, they might truly outnumber the whole atoms on Earth as quickly as 2170 (assuming a 50% annual development price in digital bits created).

“The expansion of digital data appears really unstoppable,” Vopson mentioned. “In keeping with IBM and different massive information analysis sources, 90% of the world’s information at the moment has been created within the final 10 years alone. In some methods, the present COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this course of as extra digital content material is used and produced than ever earlier than.”

Vopson is the writer of a newly published paper titled The Information Catastrophe appearing Tuesday in the journal AIP Advances


Vopson desires to experimentally confirm that data bits have mass, which he extrapolated to forecast in 225 years can be half of Earth’s mass.

Melvin Vopson

You may suppose he is envisioning a future during which we have stripped away a part of the Earth’s crust to create huge server farms and burned the remainder of its mass to energy them. However past the power and useful resource depletion implications, Vopson additionally attracts on a idea he formulated in 2019 that postulates data as a fifth state of matter.

“In reality, it was proposed that “data” is just not solely the fifth type of matter alongside stable, liquid, fuel, and plasma but in addition presumably the dominant type of matter within the universe,” he writes.

The thought builds upon the work of Einstein and later scientists. Over time, some have gone as far as to attempt to calculate the mass of a bit of information

By Vopson’s calculations, the whole mass of all the knowledge we produce in a yr is way lower than a single grain of rice, or about equal to at least one E. Coli bacterium. However it’s the potential for development that considerations Vopson. In an excessive state of affairs the place the quantity of digital data grows by 50% yearly, half of our planet’s mass might be actually transformed to bits inside 225 years. 

“On this context, assuming the planetary energy limitations are solved, one might envisage a future world largely laptop simulated and dominated by digital bits and laptop code,” his paper concludes. 

It is price noting that IDC estimates (utilizing totally different and newer information than Vopson) that the quantity of knowledge created yearly is even greater and IDC estimates the annual development price over the following few years to be round 26%. 

That will make the 2245 state of affairs Vopson describes appear maybe not as far-off and excessive. 

Nevertheless, David Wolpert, a physicist on the Santa Fe Institute is not too anxious a few looming data disaster.

“This text considers some fascinating physics points, however because the timescales are centuries, one has to fret concerning the economics side,” he writes through e-mail. 

Wolpert affords a cheeky instance for example his concern with Vopson’s logic:

“To observe in [Vopson’s] spirit, the worldwide girl’s lingerie market is increasing at an ~ 9.4% annual price… Extrapolating that to 500 years sooner or later — because the authors of the article do for a special commodity — we arrive at a determine of $three x 10^19 US$, which might clearly wreck the world’s economic system (and probably the ecosystem). The conclusion, clearly, is that we’re headed for a lingerie disaster.”

Nonetheless, whereas Vopson’s concepts about data as matter have but to be confirmed by means of experimentation, it stays worthwhile to contemplate simply how briskly our digital society is rising and at what long run prices to not simply the surroundings, however the precise planet right down to its very crust. 

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Eric Mack