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

The world could be training for an ‘information disaster’, as the pace of digital bit production continues to accelerate without signs of stopping, new research suggests.

In a new study – one stuck in the more abstract aspects of theoretical physics, it must be said – researcher Melvin Vopson of the University of Portsmouth in the UK predicts that our ever-increasing virtual supply of digital information has dramatic, unpredictable consequences have been able to for business on the planet.

“We’re literally changing the planet for bit, and it’s an invisible crisis,” Vopson says.

To understand Vopson’s latest ideas, it is worth considering a theoretical construction he proposed last year, called the mass energy information equivalence principle.

In that work, Vopson drew inspiration from research by German-American physicist Rolf Landauer in the 1960s, who held that information was physical in nature due to thermodynamic constraints.

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

Building on those ideas, Vopson hypothesized that a digital bit of information was not only physical, as Landauer suggested, but something that has a finite and quantifiable mass while storing information.

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

That said, Vopson’s idea – the principle of mass energy information equivalence – has not yet been experimentally tested at this stage.

Unsurprisingly, the researcher has now published a new paper, examining some of the hypothetical future consequences if his theoretical principle turns out to be true – and the predictions provide some mind-boggling reading.

First, Vopson considers IBM’s estimates that about 2.5 quintillion bytes of digital data are produced on Earth every day, which is about ~ 1021 annual digital bits of information.

As the amount of digital content we create increases by 20 percent annually, Vopson estimates that within about 350 years as such, the number of digital bits produced will be the number of all atoms on Earth.

Even before we get to that point, though, the energy consumption needed to sustain everything that digital information production would be more than the planet currently provides, Vopson says. But that’s not all.

If we factor in the principle of mass energy information equivalence – that old bugbear – this guaranteed amount of digital information will have important implications in terms of mass, not just in terms of energy.

“Assuming a conservative annual growth of 1 percent digital content creation … we estimate that it will take approximately ~ 3,150 years to produce the first cumulative 1kg digital information mass on the planet and it will take ~ 8,800 years to half the planetary mass in digital information mass, “Vopson explains in his paper.

“If we introduce larger growth rates of 5 percent, 20 percent, and 50 percent, respectively, those numbers will be extreme.”

Extreme is one way to put it. At 50 percent growth annually, digital content would account for half of the planet’s mass within just 225 years.

Of course, all of these theoretical predictions have to be taken with a grain of salt, because the abstract concepts explored here do not exactly correspond to the real world in the same way that the comparison suggests.

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

Yet it is some fascinating thinking, and Vopson hopes that his ideas will stimulate further theoretical and experimental research that can bring us closer to answering some of these very big questions.

“Since both special relativity and Landauer’s principle have been proven correct, it is very plausible that the new principle will also be proven correct,” Vopson told Inverse.

“Although at the moment it’s just a theory.”

The findings are reported in AIP Advances.