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Catastrophic threats are always haunting us in some form. Fears of unforeseeable events such as another mass extinction, a nuclear holocaust, and even an insect apocalypse (though that last one has recently been argued against) keep coming back. But what about an information overload?
It could happen, if you ask physicist Melvin Vopson. An astonishing half of Earth’s mass could take the form of digital data by 2245. He believes that we process so much digital information that if we keep up so much oversaturation, we will redistribute the physical atoms that make up this planet and everything on it into digital bits and computer code until we end up living in a sort of computerized simulation. You could argue that we already live in a simulation, but the unnerving thing about Vopson’s research is that it is an actual projection as opposed to something that could happen but will continue to exist in the realm of science fiction until it actually does.
“These issues are real and not speculative. Projections show that we are going to produce so much digital content in the near future that the number of bits produced would equal all the atoms on Earth,” Vopson, who recently published a study in AIP Advances, told SYFY WIRE.
“Assuming 20% annual growth rate, it is estimated that, about 350 years from now, the number of digital bits produced will exceed the number of all atoms on Earth. So the question is: Where do we store this information? How do we power this?”
Our tech obsession is creating a fifth state of matter—digital information. Pretty soon, or at least soon in cosmic terms, there will be more of it on Earth than solids, liquids, gases, and plasma combined. Maybe it is actually a sixth or seventh state of matter, since there are weird quantum states that are forever suspended between two of the original four. Whatever it is, it is now thought to be the state of matter possibly taking over the entire universe. A recent IBM estimate for the rate of digital content production on Earth maxes out at 2.5 quintillion data bytes. That’s 2.5 billion gigabytes of information every day and 90% created in just the last decade. Another decade from now, communication technologies could be using a whopping 51% of our global electricity capacity.
Vopson even believes that his estimates are on the conservative end and that all those quintillions of bytes are nothing compared to what they could blow up into. “If we look only at the magnetic data storage density, it doubled every year for over 50 years. This doubling was necessary to keep up with the data storage requirement,” he said. “It appears that our digital content strains not only the planetary energy supply, but also the mass of the planet. The total calculated mass of all the information we produce yearly on Earth is extremely insignificant and impossible to notice; about the mass of one E. coli bacterium.”
The mass-energy-information equivalence principle, though it may not have been proven in a lab yet, states that information is actually a physical thing that can morph into mass or energy. It just depends on the state of that information. Bits are massless things with no charge, so that bit would have to acquire mass somehow. This principle is blowing even scientists’ minds by explaining how stable digital bits can store data without burning energy. It has even affected theories about everything from black holes to holograms.
“If the current production rate stays constant, it will take longer than the age of the universe to produce about two pounds of information mass,” said Vopson. “But we would need to develop completely new technologies for data storage, where information is not stored in material things but in non-material media such as photons along with vacuum and holographic methods. Developing such technologies would solve the number of bits problem and the size issue. However, it is not clear what the implications are, if the information truly has mass.”
The problem is that the production rate is inevitably creeping up. With COVID-19 keeping most of us quarantined, we have been turning to our smartphones and tablets and computers more and more just to stay sane. Vopson sees a future in which life and tech become nearly inseparable. Virtual reality could eventually blur the divide between live space and cyberspace, spreading from the gaming industry to education, tourism, and anything else you could possibly think of creating an artificial but lifelike experience out of. VR could mean virtual dates or virtual doctors’ appointments.
Then you have to factor in the evolution of AI, and things like trans-humanism, or man merging with machine, evident in sci-fi works like Steve Aoki’s Neon Future. It’s kind of like Second Life leveled up to an extreme.
Vopson sees this as less of a threat and more as the dawn of an age where human lives will be entangled with digital information like never before.
“I see it as an inevitable evolution to perhaps something superior to biological life,” Vopson said. “This ‘information singularity’ could be seen as an evolutionary process to something new, a point of transition to something else, or a new beginning. This is happening slowly, but nobody will delete their Facebook or Instagram because of it. We will simply evolve and adapt.”