The world could be headed for an ‘information catastrophe’ as the rate of digital parts production continues to accelerate without any stop sign, new research suggests.
In a new study – firmly positioned in the most abstract quarters of theoretical physics, it must be said – researcher Melvin Vopson of the University of Portsmouth in the UK predicts that our ever-increasing stocks of digital information could have dramatic, unintended consequences for matter on the planets.
“We are changing the planet little by little, and this is an invisible crisis,” Vopson says.
To understand Vopson’s latest ideas, it is worth considering a theoretical construction he proposed last year, called the principle of mass energy equivalence.
In that work, Vopson took inspiration from the research of the German-American physicist Rolf Landauer in the 1960s, who thought that information has a physical nature, due to thermodynamic constraints.
Drawing on those ideas, Vopson hypothesized a digital information not just physical, as Landauer suggested, but something that has a limited and measurable mass while storing information.
In Vopson’s theoretical thinking and calculations, the mass of a data storage device will increase by a small amount when loaded with digital information, relative to its mass in a deleted state. This theoretical increase in mass would be too small, Vopson says, but nonetheless significant and measurable.
That said, Vopson’s idea – the principle of mass energy equivalence – information – has not yet been experimentally verified at this time.
Not to be discouraged, the researcher has now published a new paper, examining some of the hypothetical consequences in the future, if his theoretical principle turns out to be true – and the predictions make for some arrogant readings.
First, Vopson considers IBM estimates that about 2.5 quintiles of digital data are produced daily on Earth, amounting to about 1021 digital pieces of information each year.
If the amount of digital content we make grows by 20 percent a year, Vopson estimates that within about 350 years or so, the number of digital parts produced will exceed the number of all atoms on Earth.
Even before we get to that point, however, the energy consumption required to support all that digital information production would be more than the planet currently provides, Vopson says. But they are not all.
If we act on the principle of mass energy equivalence – the old information – this gargling amount of digital information will have significant consequences in terms of mass, not just in terms of energy.
“Assuming a conservative annual increase in digital content creation of 1 percent … we estimate that it will take about 3,150 years to produce the first cumulative mass of 1 kg of digital information on the planet and it will take 8,800 years to convert half the mass of the planet in the mass of digital information, ”Vopson explains in his paper.
“When we introduce higher growth rates of 5 percent, 20 percent and 50 percent, respectively, these numbers become extreme.”
Extreme is one way to set it up. At 50 percent a year, digital content would make up half the mass of the entire planet in just 225 years.
Of course, all of these theoretical predictions must be dealt with with a large grain of salt, because the abstract concepts explored here will not necessarily correspond to the real world in the same way that the equations suggest.
There are a large number of ambiguities and unknowns, no less important is the very principle of energy-mass-information equivalence unfounded.
Nevertheless, it is an appealing thought, and Vopson hopes that his ideas will stimulate further theoretical and experimental studies that may bring us closer to answering some of these very big questions.
“Since both special relativity and the Landauer principle have been proven correct, it is very likely that the new principle will also prove to be correct,” Vopson told Inverse.
“Although it is currently just a theory.”
Findings are reported in Advances in AIP.