Information could be half the world's mass by 2245, says researcher

Because of the amount of energy and resources used to create and store digital information, the data should be considered physical, and not just invisible ones and zeroes, according to one theoretical physicist.

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Digital content should be considered a fifth state of matter, along with gas, liquid, plasma and solid, suggests one university scholar.

Because of the energy and resources used to create, store and distribute data physically and digitally, data has evolved and should now be considered as mass, according to Melvin Vopson, a senior lecturer at the U.K.'s University of Portsmouth and author of an article, "The information catastrophe," published in the journal AIP Advances.

Vopson also claims digital bits are on a course to overwhelm the planet and will eventually outnumber atoms.

The idea of assigning mass to digital information builds off some existing data points. Vopson cites an IBM estimate that finds data is created at a rate of 2.5 quintillion bytes every day. He also factors in data storage densities of more than 1 terabit per inch to compare the size of a bit to the size of an atom.

Presuming 50% annual growth in data generation, "the number of bits would equal the number of atoms on Earth in approximately 150 years," according to a media release announcing Vopson's research.

"It would be approximately 130 years until the power needed to sustain digital information creation would equal all the power currently produced on planet Earth, and by 2245, half of Earth's mass would be converted to digital information mass," the release reads.

The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the rate of digital data creation and accelerating this process, Vopson adds.

He warns of an impending saturation point: "Even assuming that future technological progress brings the bit size down to sizes closer to the atom itself, this volume of digital information will take up more than the size of the planet, leading to what we define as the information catastrophe," Vopson writes in the paper.

"We are literally changing the planet bit by bit, and it is an invisible crisis," says Vopson, a former R&D scientist at Seagate Technology.

Vopson isn't alone in exploring the idea that information isn't simply imperceptible ones and zeroes. According to the release, Vopson draws on the mass-energy comparisons in Einstein's theory of general relativity; the work of Rolf Landauer, who applied the laws of thermodynamics to information; and the work of Claude Shannon, the inventor of the digital bit.

"When one brings information content into existing physical theories, it is almost like an extra dimension to everything in physics," Vopson says.

With a growth rate that seems unstoppable, digital information production "will consume most of the planetary power capacity, leading to ethical and environmental concerns," his paper concludes.

Interestingly – and a bit more out there – Vopson also suggests that if, as he projects, the future mass of the planet is made up predominantly of bits of information, and there exists enough power created to do it (not certain), then "one could envisage a future world mostly computer simulated and dominated by digital bits and computer code," he writes.

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