Half the atoms in the planet could be digital data by 2245

An abstract image of EArth with global network connectivity overlaid
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Information might seem immaterial. 

But within a few short centuries, the total amount of digital bits produced annually by humanity could exceed the number of atoms on our planet and, even more unexpectedly, account for half of its mass. 

Those are the conclusions of a mind-bending new study looking at the growth of data over time and its potentially catastrophic consequences. 

We live in information-rich times. Cell phones everywhere and high social media use mean that almost every human being is generating astonishing quantities of computerized content every day. 

Related: What could drive humans to extinction? 

IBM and other technology research companies have estimated that 90% of the world's current digital data was produced in the last decade alone, prompting physicist Melvin Vopson of the University of Portsmouth in England to wonder where we might be headed in the future. 

His analysis began with the fact that Earth currently contains roughly 10^21, or 100 billion billion, bits of computer information. 

"This is everything we collectively do," Vopson told Live Science. "Any digital content produced and stored anywhere on the planet by anyone." 

Vopson then calculated how much more data might exist in the future. This isn't simply a linear extrapolation, since the amount of new information is also growing with time.

Assuming a 20% annual growth rate in digital content, Vopson showed that 350 years from now, the number of data bits on Earth will be greater than all the atoms inside it, of which there are about 10^50 or a hundred trillion trillion trillion trillion. Even before this time, humanity would be using the equivalent of its current power consumption just to sustain all these zeros and ones. 

"The question is: Where do we store this information? How do we power this?" Vopson said. "I call this the invisible crisis, as today it is truly an invisible problem."

Related: How much information does the internet hold?

While such timescales might seem far enough in the future to ignore at present, Vopson also warns of another possible concern. In 1961, the German-American physicist Rolf Landauer proposed that, because erasing a digital bit produces a tiny amount of heat, there's a link between information and energy.

Though still a matter of scientific debate, this finding, known as Landauer's principle, has received some experimental verification in recent years. In a 2019 study published in the journal AIP Advances, Vopson posited that there might therefore be a relationship between information and mass. 

The conjecture relies on the famous equation E = mc^2, derived by Albert Einstein at the beginning of the 20th century. Einstein's work showed that energy and mass are interchangeable, leading Vopson to calculate the potential mass of a single bit of information — about 10 million times smaller than an electron. 

This means that the current mass of information produced every year is insignificant, about the weight of a single E. coli bacteria, Vopson said. But, assuming that same 20% growth per year, half of Earth's mass could be converted into digital data in less than 500 years. 

Assuming a 50% growth rate, half the planet would be information by just 2245. Vopson's findings appeared Aug. 11 in the same journal, AIP Advances

"I see this as a real problem," Vopson said. "Just [like] burning fossil fuels, plastic pollution and deforestation, I think the information is something overlooked by everyone. We are literally changing the planet bit-by-bit."

In fact, he considers the growth rates in his paper to be somewhat conservative (the International Data Corporation estimates the current data growth rate at 61 percent) and thinks this information catastrophe might occur sooner than predicted. A way to alleviate the issues of storing such vast amounts of data might be to develop technology that would keep information in non-material mediums such as holograms, he said. 

The arguments put forth in the study are thought-provoking and surprising, particle physicist Luis Herrera of the University of Salamanca in Spain, who was not involved in the work, told Live Science. But the idea that information has mass remains theoretical and will require experiments to prove it, he added. 

Given the long timeframes involved and the reality of other, more immediate crises, "I think there are a lot more important problems than this one," Herrera said. 

Originally published on Live Science.

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Adam Mann
Space.com Contributor

Adam Mann is a journalist specializing in astronomy and physics stories. His work has appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Wired, Nature, Science, and many other places. He lives in Oakland, California, where he enjoys riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @adamspacemann or visit his website at https://www.adamspacemann.com/.

  • logicalone2
    Another silly inference. In 200 years, we will have access to the solar system. Our species is on the cusp of a major evolution now, and who knows what technology will be developed in such an enormous time span. Maybe we will decide to create dyson swarms to more full advantage of the suns energy, and maybe we will have enormous space habitats made from asteroids or minor planets. We could have planetoid sized computational devices. In any event it will be a transition to a significantly different type of existence and to try to project some individual process and anthropomorphize it as if who are living today would stay the same is a useless exercise. For those that believe a technological singularity is coming within 50 years, there is no point in looking past that time frame, because all bets are off.
  • Catastrophe
    "But within a few short centuries, the total amount of digital bits produced annually by humanity could exceed the number of atoms on our planet and, even more unexpectedly, account for half of its mass.

    Come on . . . . . . . . . is this really serious?

    I suppose if you count . . . . . . . . . information about information

    . . . . . . . . . about information . . . . . . . . . but is this planet really that crazy?

    OR . . . . . . . . . are the inhabitants?
  • Helio
    Sounds like a bit of a problem! ;)
  • iwritten
    The greater the mass, the greater the gravitational force of attraction between objects. Does that mean the chance of an asteroid impacting earth would increase as the amount of data grows?

    Sounds like a heading could be created from this for fake news or clickbait article.
  • Mergatroid
    What a steaming pile of...misinformation. Half the mass of the planet? Puhlease. Is he saying we are going to mine half our planet into non existance by converting it to information, or is he saying we will add 50% more mass to our planet?
    Either and both are utterly ridiculous.
    Man, what some people will write and try an make money off of these days...
  • Helio
    Hyperbole is often effective at making a point. We need not get stuck, however, on today's technology. We will likely, for instance, move past binary data, thus reducing the volume.
  • ChrisA
    I remember years ago a math professor explained a common proof method: Assume X and then show that if X then Y. Show that Y is impossible. This is proof that your assumption of X is wrong.

    So, in this case, Y = "half the Earth is data", This is impossible therefore the assumption is wrong. Either data has no mass or we will not create so much of it.

    When they printed the first books some one noticed that the rate of printing was increasing and as they built even more presses there were even more books. Someone calculated that "If this continues the entire surface of the Earth will be covered a mile deep with books by the year 2000"

    The falicy in both this and my made-up story about books is that all new technology goes through a phase of exposnential growth then it slows. This applies to flush-toilets too. At first there was unlimited demand and then everyone had one and only buys a new one to replace one that broke.

    One more false assumption. Most of the data is just video. so last year the average person shot 40 minutes of video and today the shoot 60. But it is wrong to assume the strand continues. No person will shoot 1000 hours of video per day.

    Moore's law with computer chips is the same. The trend can not continue

    This article is yet another "proof" that exponential growth is only possible for short periods.
  • Catastrophe
    Has anyone thought of applying this argument to expansion of the Universe?

    We have already had inflation.

    Cat :)