Is Earth primarily a planet of life, a world run by animals, plants, bacteria, and everything else that lives here? Or is it a planet dominated by human creativity? We’ve certainly reshaped our home in many ways, from pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to literally redrawing coastlines. But by one measure, biology wins hands down.
In an opinion article published in Newspaper life On August 31, astronomers and astrobiologists estimated the amount of information transmitted by an enormous class of organisms and communications technology. Their findings were clear: Earth’s biosphere produces far more information than the Internet has ever provided in its 30-year history. “This suggests that for all the rapid progress humans have made, nature is still more fascinating in its complexity,” he says. Manasvi Lingaman astrobiologist at the Florida Institute of Technology and one of the paper’s authors.
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But this could change in the very near future. Lingam and his colleagues say that if the Internet continues to grow at its current voracious rate, it will eclipse the data emerging from the biosphere in less than a century. This could help us hone our search for intelligent life on other planets by telling us what kind of information we should be looking for.
To represent information from technology, the authors focused on the amount of data transmitted over the Internet, which far exceeds any other form of human communication. Every second, the Internet carries about 40 terabytes of information. They then compared it to the amount of information flowing through the Earth’s biosphere. We may not think of the natural world as a world of big data, but living organisms have their own ways of communicating. “In my opinion, one of the reasons – though not the only one – that underpins the complexity of the biosphere is the huge amount of information flow associated with it,” Lingam says.
Certainly, bird calls, whale singing, and pheromones are all forms of communication. But Lingam and his colleagues focused on information conveyed by individual cells, often in the form of molecules that other cells pick up and respond accordingly, such as producing specific proteins. The authors focused in particular on the 100 octillion unicellular prokaryotes that make them up The majority of our planet’s biomass.
“This is more or less representative of most life on Earth,” he says. Andrew Rushby, an astrobiologist at Birkbeck, University of London, who was not an author on this paper. “Just green slime stuck to the surface of the planet. With a couple of primates running around on it, sometimes.”
Since all prokaryotes on Earth send signals to each other, the authors estimate, they generate about a billion times as much data as our technology. But human progress is rapid: according to One estimate, the Internet grows by about 26 percent every year. Under the bold assumption that these rates will remain constant for decades to come, the authors report that their size will continue to swell until they dwarf the biosphere in about 90 years, sometime in the early 22nd century.
So what does a world look like in which we produce more information than nature actually does? It is difficult to predict with certainty. A 21st-century version of Earth may be as alien to us as today’s Earth appears to someone from the 1930s. However, imagine that alien astronomers in another star system are carefully observing our planet. Instead of catching a glimpse of a planet teeming with natural life, their first impressions of Earth may be a torrent of digital data.
Now, imagine the opposite. For decades, scientists and military experts have sought alien signatures in any form. Astronomers have traditionally focused on the energy that an intelligent life civilization might use, but earlier this year, One group crunched the numbers To determine whether aliens in a nearby star system could pick up leakage from cell phone towers. (The answer is probably no, at least with LTE networks and technology like radio telescopes today.)
On the other hand, we do not have the full observational capabilities to identify extraterrestrial life yet. “I don’t think there’s any way we can figure out those kind of predictions and outcomes [Lingam and his coauthors] “It’s been measured here,” Rushby says. “How can we determine this kind of remote information capacity, or this information transmission rate? We are probably not at the point where we can do that.”
But Rashby thinks the study represents an interesting next step in this direction. Astrobiologists – and certainly those searching for extraterrestrial life – are increasingly thinking about the types and volumes of information carried by different life forms. “There seems to be this information ‘revolution’ where we think about life a little differently,” he says. Ultimately, we may learn that there is more harmony between the communication networks built by nature and computers.