About 150 years from now there will be just as many bits on earth as atoms.
Digital information is sometimes also seen as the fifth state of matter, next to liquid, solid, gas and plasma. And if we don’t pay attention, our world will soon consist largely of digital information. Researchers warn against this in a new study . “The growth of digital information really does not seem to be stopping,” said researcher Melvin Vopson.
Atoms and bits
Atoms are the building blocks of the world. Everything around us is based on that one chemical process where two atoms bond and form matter. Today, however, we all produce an enormous amount of digital information, or bits (see box). We are currently converting physical atoms into bits at breakneck speed. And if that continues, we will eventually end up in an invisible ‘digital information
More about bits
Everyone uses a laptop, tablet, smartphone or other computer system on a daily basis. All these systems work on bits. These express the smallest form of information from a computer on the basis of a binary number system. This means that two different values are possible, which are usually presented as the values 1 and 0. With this you can express all information.
According to the researchers, we will reach a point where the number of digital bits exceed the number of atoms on Earth. It means that we have then created a world dominated by digital bits and computer codes. Our living environment then largely takes place virtually. And while this may sound ominous, researchers say it’s only a matter of time. “We are literally changing the planet little by little,” argues Vopson. “It’s an invisible crisis.”
Actually, we have already seen this happen in recent decades. Indeed, 90 percent of the world’s current data has been produced in the past ten years. “In some ways, the current pandemic has accelerated this process,” says Vopson. “More digital content is currently being used and created than ever before.”
The problem is that the production of all that information requires an enormous amount of energy. Right now, we are using many resources such as coal, oil, natural gas, copper, silicon and aluminum to power immense computer farms and process the digital information.
But that is not even the only problem. If we continue at this current rate, this means that in about 150 years’ time there will be as many bits as atoms on Earth. And by 2245, the total weight of all that digital information could be equal to half the weight of the Earth.
Whether we are actually heading for this predicted disaster scenario at this point is still the question. Because although Vopson suggested in a study last year that information, like other matter, moves between states of mass and energy, this principle has not yet been conclusively proven. The researcher bases his theory on the mass-energy relationship in Einstein’s general theory of 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.
So there are still some ifs and buts to the theory. Although it is a fascinating way of thinking. “The theory builds on previous concepts and opens up a huge range of new physics, especially in cosmology,” said Vopson. “When you add information to existing physics theories, it almost adds an extra dimension to everything in physics.”