The Technological Brain Grows

An interesting new paper in Science today estimating the insanely fast growth in our technological capacity for storing and communicating information. Below is the abstract in full. Followed by a science-class documentary from the 1960s and beyond niftily explaining those pesky powers of ten.

 

We estimate the world’s technological capacity to store, communicate, and compute information, tracking 60 analog and digital technologies during the period from 1986 to 2007. In 2007, humankind was able to store 2.9 × 1020 optimally compressed bytes, communicate almost 2× 1021 bytes, and carry out 6.4 × 1018 instructions per second on general-purpose computers. General-purpose computing capacity grew at an annual rate of 58%. The world’s capacity for bidirectional telecommunication grew at 28% per year, closely followed by the increase in globally stored information (23%). Humankind’s capacity for unidirectional information diffusion through broadcasting channels has experienced comparatively modest annual growth (6%). Telecommunication has been dominated by digital technologies since 1990 (99.9% in digital format in 2007), and the majority of our technological memory has been in digital format since the early 2000s (94% digital in 2007).

 

 

The authors of the Science paper close with these words:

To put our findings in perspective, the 6.4*1018 instructions per second that human kind can carry out on its general-purpose computers in 2007 are in the same ballpark area as the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by one human brain per second (1017) (36). The 2.4*1021 bits stored by humanity in all of its technological devices in 2007 is approaching order of magnitude of the roughly 1023 bits stored in the DNA of a human adult (37), but it is still minuscule compared to the 1090 bits stored in the observable universe (38). However, in contrast to natural information processing, the world’s technological information processing capacities are quickly growing at clearly exponential rates.

 

The paper:

  • Martin Hilbert and Priscila López. The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information. 2011. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.120097

 

Fact:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn’t fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation so we can keep on doing the type of journalism that 2018 demands.

Donate Now
  • Julia Whitty is the environmental correspondent for Mother Jones. Her latest book is Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. For more of her stories, click here.