In 200 years, data generation to take up as much power as the world produces today: Study
Scientists are, however, divided upon this claim saying that newer tech will help.Updated: Aug 11, 2020 23:52 IST
In less than 200 years, we may need as much power as we are generating today into storing digital information, according to a new study published in AIP Advances on August 11
The smallest unit of digital information, called bits, could match the number of atoms – 1050 – on earth by 2170, making it a digital world, quite literally, the study adds.
Over the last few years, there have been many claims, some with similar warnings, and others that said the fears of a crisis being uncalled for.
The study, by Dr Melvin Vopson, a senior lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Physics, University of Portsmouth, is a red flag.
Considering the present requirements of storing data and extrapolating it with a growth rate of 50%, Dr Vopson said that the energy requirement will reach 18.5 terawatt (TW). This is the net energy being produced in the world today and powers everything from transport to households and industries.
“It’s certainly interesting to attempt such a thought experiment but I believe it (the new study) is oversimplifying the matter,” said Dr Fabian Natterer, a professor at the department of physics of the University of Zurich who independently reviewed the study. He was part of the IBM team that, in 2017, managed to encode a bit onto an atom.
Bits are binary codes -- appearing in 0s and 1s -- that is used to encode everything from the English alphabet to pictures in a form that machines can understand. Under existing technologies, almost 100,000 atoms are required to store one bit.
Researchers have been trying to compress data onto the smallest area of material, giving us smaller devices with great capabilities. There have been attempts at even coding data into new materials, such as plastic and even, DNA.
March of technology
Dr. Natterer said that the new study did not touch upon the latest technology.
“The latest developments in data recording, such as using the tunnel effect to write information to bits, would have drastically lower energy requirements per writing operation,” he said. “One could also note that it is conceivable to store more than one bit per atom, since atoms have more inner structure that could be exploited.”
But such technologies are decades away, argued Dr Vopson.
“It is not only the complexity around the writing and storing information in such a small volume, but developing sensitive enough read heads to retrieve back the information is another beast,” he said.
The complexity and sensitivity, in part, has to do with keeping noise -- disturbances to a signal -- out, which will require protecting bits from outside interference.
In Dr Natterer’s work, for example, a rare atom had to be cooled to -233℃ for it to have the stability to hold a single bit. This, as anyone who owns an air conditioner would know, is expensive and energy consuming.
“Practical systems cannot hold off noise completely and when we reach the quantum level, it is going to be highly fragile,” said Dr Shayan Srinivasa Garani of the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering, Indian Institute of Science. “Even to isolate an atom, you need to put an enormous amount of energy. So I’m sceptical about information bits being stored in every atom.”
But data centers are advancing in terms of efficiency. A study in Science reported between 2010 and 2018, for example, while computing output had increased six-fold, the power increase was only six per cent. They concluded that though this trend is expected to continue for a few years, beyond that was anyone’s guess.
“To store tons and tons of data, you’ll have to put up huge data centres where you’ll have to expend energy. That is a big concern,” said Dr. Garani.
“According to IBM and other Big Data research sources, 90% of the world’s data today has been created in the last 10 years alone. I didn’t want to sound alarmist in the article, but the growth values used are rather conservative,” said Dr Vopson. “In some ways, the current Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this process as more digital content is used and produced than ever before.”
Dr Natterer, however, was more reserved in his assessment. “Since the scope of the (AIP Advances) author’s work extends to hundreds and thousands of years, it is conceivable that technology will catch up as well by then,” he said.