Elementary school science teaches us that there are four types of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. But a new theoretical study says that the fifth form of matter has been lurking right under our noses and has the potential to cause a worldwide crisis if left unabated.
No, not an element and not a young woman named Leeloo. This proposed fifth form is information.
But before we cower in the face of this new singularity, there are a few important caveats to consider.
In the findings, published Tuesday in the journal AIP Advances, Vopson, a senior lecturer in physics at the University of Portsmouth, turns to a thermodynamics principle proposed by physicist Rolf Landauer in 1961 to explain the relationship between bits — the tiniest parts of information that make-up everything from how we send texts to how quantum computers are coded — and energy.
In a nutshell, Landauer proposed that destroying a bit of information requires a comparable dissipation of energy. With this principle in mind, it stands to reason that the creation and destruction of more and more bits of information would require the use of more and more energy.
And this is precisely the problem, says Vopson.
"The growth of digital information seems truly unstoppable," Vopson explains. "According to IBM and other big data research sources, 90 percent of the world's data today has been created in the last 10 years alone. In some ways, the current COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this process as more digital content is used and produced than ever before."
Calculating the total mass of information — According to IBM, we collectively create 2.5 billion gigabytes of information every day on Earth, and because each byte is comprised of eight bits, this is equivalent to 2 x 10^19 bits. For a whole year, this is equivalent to 7.3 sextillion bits.
That is a lot of information. Vopson argues that the creation of this much data is only expected to increase in the coming decades and centuries as our lives becoming increasingly digital. The question is whether or not we can sustain this influx.
With estimated growth rates per year of 5 percent, 20 percent, and 50 percent, Vopson estimates that the total number of bits created could match the total number of atoms on Earth as soon as 2170. And in slightly less time, just 130 years, Vopson estimates that energy requirements for information alone will be equivalent to total power consumption on Earth today, which includes industrial, transportation, and domestic energy.
"It is almost like an extra dimension to everything in physics."
This problem goes beyond energy alone, Vopson says. He also postulates that information can move between states of mass and energy just like any other type of matter. Should this assumption be true, it could mean that the sheer amount of energy required to produce this data could be equated to mass as well — in fact, Vopson estimates that information alone could equal half the Earth's total mass by 2245.
But, there's a catch. These assumptions were proposed by Vopson himself in 2019 and have yet to be experimentally confirmed.
Vopson tells Inverse he's still optimistic that it will be proven correct based on the scientific theories he draws from.
"Since both special relativity and Landauer’s principle have been proven correct, it is highly probable that the new principle will also be proven correct, although it is currently just a theory," Vopson says.
And should this principle be confirmed, Vopson says it could be huge implications for the study of physics, particularly cosmology.
"The mass-energy-information equivalence principle builds on these concepts and opens up a huge range of new physics, especially in cosmology," he explains. "When one brings information content into existing physical theories, it is almost like an extra dimension to everything in physics."
To store all this data, Vopson says that technology will need to be developed beyond the simple magnetic or optical hard-drives we have today. Instead, it could be stored on non-physical entities like photons.
So, are we in trouble? — Vopson's paper doesn't touch much on what this energy saturation would mean for the end-of-days — or how we can avoid it. Still, he tells Inverse that this new singularity isn't necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it could represent a new form of evolution towards a transhumanist future.
"We are literally changing the planet bit-by-bit," Vopson says. "This is the invisible crisis because the effects are not visible yet."
Abstract: Currently we produce ~1021 digital bits of information annually on Earth. Assuming 20% annual growth rate, we estimate that after ~350 years from now, the number of bits produced will exceed the number of all atoms on Earth, ~1050. After ~300 years, the power required to sustain this digital production will exceed 18.5 1015 Watts, i.e. the total planetary power consumption today, and after ~500 years from now the digital content will account for more than half of the Earth’s mass, according to the mass-energy-information equivalence principle. Besides the existing global challenges such as climate, environment, population, food, health, energy and security, our estimates here point to another singularity event for our planet, called the Information Catastrophe.