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Visualization of Virtual World
Visualization of Virtual World

Does Information Weigh Something After All? What If It Does?

At the rate we create information today, one physicist computes that in 350 years, the energy will outweigh the atoms of Earth

In the 1960s, IBM researcher Rolf Landauer (1927–1999) observed that if the logical information in a computational system decreased, then the physical entropy in the system must increase (Landauer’s Principle). This conclusion follows from the principle that the entropy in a closed system can never decrease.

A decrease in the logical information corresponds to a decrease in entropy. And factoring in the principle that the entropy cannot actually decrease, the physical system itself must increase in entropy when the information decreases. This increase in entropy will result in the emission of heat, and a reduction of energy in the system.

Now Melvin Vopson, a physicist at the University of Portsmouth, has taken Landauer’s principle to the next logical step. He applies Einstein’s observation that energy and mass are interchangeable, signified by the iconic e=mc 2 equation. If the elimination of information increases entropy, which in turn gives off energy in the form of heat, then reducing the logical information in a system also decreases the amount of energy in the system.

Vopson has now reversed this implication to conclude that information created in a system must increase the amount of energy in the system, and consequently also increase the amount of mass. If that is true, what are the future implications for our projected global information society?:

In the past 24 hours, people uploaded more than 720,000 hours’ worth of footage onto YouTube.

According to calculations made a few years ago by University of Portsmouth physicist Melvin Vopson, this literal mass of visual imagery – along with half a billion tweets, countless texts, billions of WhatsApp messages, and every other bit and byte of information we’ve created – could be making our planet a touch heavier.

Mike McRae, “Digital Data Could Be Altering Earth’s Mass Just a Tiny Bit, Claims Physicist” at Science Alert (March 26, 2022)

Vopson’s theory offers very counterintuitive implication: “In fact, in 350 years, some experts predict the weight of our digital bits could outweigh all the atoms on Earth.”

Additionally, his theory has testable consequences:

If we presume an electron’s total mass is made up of its intrinsic resting energy and a tiny bit of information about itself, it would theoretically emit a predictable spectrum of energy in the spray of photons released on meeting its antimatter counterpart, the positron.

Is Vopson’s theory justified? I am a bit skeptical, but the reversing of Landauer’s principle appears sound. If we assume the opposite, that creating information does not increase the energy and mass in the system, then we end up with a situation where we create infinite negative energy and mass by constantly creating and destroying information.

Let’s take one more little step off Vopson’s idea. Let’s accept that creation of information can indeed increase the amount of energy and mass in a system. But, according to the conservation of energy, the energy in a closed system remains constant. So, if Vopson is correct we now have a mystery because his theory is in tension with the conservation of energy. The only solution is that the system is not closed. So where is the opening in the system? If the system is physically closed, then the influx of information must come from outside the physical realm.

Vopson’s idea that creating information also creates mass and energy is fascinating, and proposes even bigger mysteries.

The paper is open access.

You may also wish to read: Is GPT-3 the “reborn doll” of artificial intelligence? Unlike the reality doll collectors, GPT-3 engineers truly believe that scaling up the model size will suddenly cause GPT-3 to think and talk like a real human. If we doubt that the reborn dolls will ever become real babies, why should we expect a different outcome with the GPT-3 language model? (Eric Holloway)

Eric Holloway

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Eric Holloway is a Senior Fellow with the Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence, and holds a PhD in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Baylor University. A Captain in the United States Air Force, he served in the US and Afghanistan. He is the co-editor of Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies.

Does Information Weigh Something After All? What If It Does?