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Study calculates humanity's information capacity – but we're still running second

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February 13, 2011

A new study finds that, in 2007 humankind was able to store at least 256 exabytes of infor...

A new study finds that, in 2007 humankind was able to store at least 256 exabytes of information

Prepare for some mind-boggling numbers. A new study has estimated how much information there is in the world in terms of how much humankind is able to store, communicate and compute. Looking at the period from 1986 to 2007, the study is the first to quantify humankind’s ability to handle information and how it has changed in the past two decades. But despite the monumental figures, the numbers still pale in comparison to the order of magnitude with which nature handles information.

Information storage

The research team from the University of Southern California (USC) examined the period from 1986 to 2007 and calculated that, including both analog devices and digital memory, in 2007 humankind was able to store at least 256 exabytes of information – an exabyte is equal to one quintillion bytes or one billion gigabytes. Despite all those zeroes, that’s still less than one percent of the information stored in the DNA molecules of a single human being.

From 1986 to 2007 storage capacity grew at a rate of 23 percent a year. In 2002, worldwide digital storage capacity overtook analog capacity for the first time and within five short years, almost 94 percent of humankind’s information storage was in digital form – a figure that is sure to be even higher now.

Telecommunications

Every day we are bombarded with staggering amounts of information from a variety of sources. The researchers looked at the respective amounts of information relayed through different sources and estimated that, in 2007, 1.9 zettabytes – or 1.9 billion terabytes – on information was transmitted via broadcast technology such as television and GPS. That’s equivalent to every person in the world reading 174 newspapers every day.

Looking at two-way communications, such as mobile phones, it was calculated that 65 exabytes of information was shared through telecommunications in 2007. That’s equivalent to every person in the world communicating the contents of six newspapers every day.

Computing power

From 1986 to 2007 the researchers say worldwide computing capacity grew 58 percent a year, which is 10 times faster than the United States’ gross domestic product. If all general-purpose computers in the world in 2007 were run simultaneously, in one second they could have calculated 6.4 x 10^18 instructions per second. This is roughly the same number of nerve impulses executed by a single human brain. To put it another way, doing this number of instructions by hand would take 2,200 times the period since the Big Bang.

The study’s lead author, Martin Hilbert, a USC Provost's fellow at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, says that these numbers are still miniscule compared to the order of magnitude at which nature handles information. However, the information processing capabilities of the natural world remains fairly constant, while the world’s technological capacities are growing at exponential rates. And you thought you were suffering information overload now.

The study appeared this month in Science Express.

How much information can the world store, communicate, and compute? from SCVideos on Vimeo.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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