Aug. 11 (UPI) -- Every day, Earth's natural resources are converted into digital information.
As more and more raw materials and fossil fuels are used to power the computer systems and servers that support the digital economy, the Earth gets a little smaller and the world's digital footprint grows a little bigger.
According to new research, that's a problem.
Currently, one sextillion new digital bits of information are created each year. But each year that number goes up, and according to a new study, the growth of the digital economy will eventually become unsustainable.
"Assuming a 20 percent annual growth rate, we estimate that after [approximately] 350 years from now, the number of bits produced will exceed the number of all atoms on Earth," Melvin Vopson, physicist at the University of Portsmouth in Britain, wrote in a new paper published Tuesday in the journal AIP Advances.
If that growth rate increases to 50 percent, digital information will exceed half the Earth's mass by 2245.
"The growth of digital information seems truly unstoppable," Vopson said in a news release. "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," Vopson said.
It may seem like digital information is weightless and invisible, but the creation and storage of digital information requires raw materials and massive amounts of energy.
Every year, coal, oil, natural gas, copper, silicon and aluminum are used to build and power the massive computer farms that keep the digital economy humming along.
Researchers estimate that in 300 years, digital production will require the equivalent of planetary power consumption today.
"We are literally changing the planet bit by bit, and it is an invisible crisis," Vopson said.
For his analysis, Vopson relied on Einstein's theory of general relativity, as well as physicist Rolf Landauer, who showed information is governed by the laws of thermodynamics. Vopson efforts were also informed by the work Claude Shannon, who invented the digital bit.
Last year, Vopson developed a theory that suggests information behaves much like matter, moving between various states of mass and energy.
"The mass-energy-information equivalence principle builds on these concepts and opens up a huge range of new physics, especially in cosmology," he said. "When one brings information content into existing physical theories, it is almost like an extra dimension to everything in physics."