Digital information threatens to exceed the mass of the planet

(ORDO NEWS) — New research suggests the world could face an “information disaster” as the rate at which digital bits are produced continues to grow at an incredible rate.

In a new study that, it must be said, takes a firm foothold in the more abstract areas of theoretical physics, researcher Melvin Wopson of the University of Portsmouth in the UK predicts that our ever-increasing virtual store of digital information could have dramatic, unintended consequences for the planet.

“We are gradually changing the planet, and this is an invisible crisis,” says Wopson.

To understand Wopson’s newest ideas, it’s worth considering a theoretical construction he proposed last year called the principle of mass-energy-information equivalence.

In this work, Wopson drew inspiration from the research of the German-American physicist Rolf Landauer in the 1960s, who argued that information is physical in nature due to thermodynamic limitations.

Based on these ideas, Wopson suggested that the digital bit of information was not just physical, as Landauer assumed, but something that had a finite and quantifiable mass as long as the information was stored.

The projected increase in the mass of digital information in the future. (Vopson, AIP Advances, 2020)
According to Wopson’s speculations and theoretical calculations, the mass of the storage device will increase by a small amount when loading digital information, compared to its mass when empty. This theoretical mass gain would be incredibly tiny, but still measurable, Wopson said.

However, Wopson’s idea – the principle of the equivalence of mass – energy – information – has not yet been experimentally confirmed at the present time.

The researcher has published a new article that explores some of the hypothetical future consequences if his theoretical principle turns out to be correct and the predictions look overwhelming.

According to IBM estimates, about 2.5 quintillion bytes of digital data are produced on Earth every day, which is approximately 1,021 digital bits of information annually.

According to Wopson’s calculations, if the volume of digital content we create increases by 20 percent a year, then in about 350 years the number of digital bits produced will exceed the number of all atoms on Earth.

However, even before we get to this point, the power consumption required to support all this digital information production will be more than the planet currently supplies, Wopson says. But that’s not all.

If we take into account the principle of equivalence of mass, energy and information – this colossal amount of digital information will have significant consequences in terms of mass, and not just in terms of energy.

“Assuming 1 percent annual growth in digital content creation … we estimate it will take about 3,150 years to produce the first cumulative 1 kg of digital mass on the planet, and it will take about 8,800 years to convert half of the planet’s mass into digital information mass,” – explains Wopson in his article.

“If we introduce higher growth rates of 5 percent, 20 percent and 50 percent, respectively, these numbers become extreme.”

At 50 percent annual growth, digital content will account for half the mass of the entire planet in just 225 years.

Of course, all these theoretical predictions should be taken with a great deal of skepticism, since the abstract concepts studied here do not necessarily correspond exactly to the real world.

There are a huge number of uncertainties and unknowns, not the least of which is the unproven principle of equivalence of mass, energy and information itself.

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