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Digital information threatens to consume the mass of the planet, say physicists

New research suggests that the world may be heading for an “information catastrophe” as the pace of digital bit production continues to accelerate with no signs of stopping.

In a new study – one of the positions in the more abstract quarters of theoretical physics, it must be said – researcher Melvin Wopson of the University of Portsmouth in the UK predicts that our ever-growing virtual stocks of digital information could have dramatic, unintended consequences for the matter of the planet.

“We’re literally changing the planet little by little, and it’s an invisible crisis,” Wopson said.

To understand Wapson’s latest ideas, it̵

7;s worth looking at a theoretical construction he proposed last year called the mass-energy-information equivalence principle.

In this work, Wopson draws inspiration from the research of the German-American physicist Rolf Landauer in the 1960s, who believed that information was physical in nature due to thermodynamic constraints.

010 information catastrophe 1Projected increase in the digital information mass in the future. (Vopson, AIP Advances, 2020)

Based on these ideas, Vopson suggested that the digital bit of information is not just physical, as Landauer suggested, but something that has a limited and measurable mass while storing information.

According to Vopson’s thinking and theoretical calculations, the mass of a storage device would increase by a small amount when loaded with digital information compared to its mass in the deleted state. This theoretical increase in mass would be incredibly small, says Vopson, but still significant and measurable.

That said, Wopson’s idea – the principle of mass-energy-information equivalence – has not yet been experimentally tested.

Not to be discouraged, the researcher has already published a new paper examining some of the hypothetical future implications, if his theoretical principle turns out to be true – and the predictions make some mind-boggling readings.

First, Vopson examines IBM’s calculations that approximately 2.5 quintillion bytes of digital data are produced on Earth each day, amounting to about ~ 1021 digital information bits per year.

If the amount of digital content we make increases by 20 percent a year, Vopson estimates that 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 energy consumption needed to sustain the entire production of digital information will be more than the planet currently provides, Vopson says. But that’s not all.

If we take into account the principle of mass-energy-information equivalence – that old bugger – this huge amount of digital information will have a significant impact in terms of mass, not just energy.

“If we accept the conservative annual growth of digital content creation of 1% … we believe that it will take about 3150 years to produce the first cumulative 1 kg digital information mass on the planet and it will take ~ 8,800 years to to transform half of the planet’s mass into a digital information mass, “Vapson explains in his document.

“When we introduce higher growth rates of 5 percent, 20 percent and 50 percent, respectively, those numbers become finite.”

Extreme is one way to place. With 50 percent annual growth, digital content would account for half the mass of the entire planet in just 225 years.

Of course, all these theoretical predictions must be taken with a huge grain of salt, because the abstract concepts studied here should not correspond exactly to the real world in the same way as the equations suggest.

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

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating way of thinking, and Wopson hopes that his ideas will stimulate further theoretical and experimental research that may bring us closer to answering some of these very big questions.

“Since both special relativity and Landauer’s principle have proved to be correct, it is very likely that the new principle will also be correct,” Vapson told Inverse.

“Although it’s just a theory right now.”

The results were reported in AIP advances,,

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