Does Earth stand as a beacon of life, a realm nurtured by its vast array of organisms? Or is it overshadowed by the constructs of humankind? Undeniably, our interventions have transformed Earth in myriad ways—from the surge of greenhouse emissions to the alteration of coastlines.
Yet, by a specific metric, the realm of biology reigns supreme. In an editorial presented in the Life journal dated August 31, a team of astrobiologists and astronomers evaluated the quantum of data conveyed by a vast spectrum of living entities and technological means.
Their findings resonate clearly: The total data generated by Earth’s living organisms eclipses the entirety of the internet’s data produced over three decades.
Such findings emphasize that, despite humanity’s swift advancements, the intricacies of nature continue to be astoundingly superior, commented Manasvi Lingam, an astrobiologist affiliated with the Florida Institute of Technology and a contributor to the study. However, this equilibrium might soon be disrupted.
Lingam and his peers project that, given the insatiable growth trajectory of the internet, it might surpass the data output of the biosphere within the forthcoming century. Such insights could refine our methodologies in seeking intelligent extraterrestrial entities, guiding us on the data types to prioritize.
For their technological data benchmark, the researchers emphasized data transmission across the internet, which surpasses any other human communication method. Presently, the internet transmits approximately 40 terabytes of data every second.
This was juxtaposed against the data magnitude circulating within Earth’s biotic sphere. Even though the organic realm isn’t conventionally viewed as a data behemoth, all organisms engage in intricate communication.
Indeed, the communication mediums of birds, whales, and even molecular signals are profound. Yet, Lingam and team zoomed into the data relayed by individual cells—often through molecular cues that trigger specific responses in other cells, like protein synthesis.
Their focus centered on the 100 octillion unicellular prokaryotes, the dominant biomass constituents on Earth. According to their calculations, the cumulative data generated by Earth’s prokaryotes eclipses our technological outputs by nearly a billion-fold.
Yet, technology’s pace is relentless. With estimates indicating a 26% annual growth of the internet, and assuming such growth remains consistent, they anticipate technology to surpass biotic data by the early 22nd century, roughly in 90 years. So, how would a future where human-made data outpaces natural data appear?
Predicting such a scenario remains challenging. A 2110 Earth might be as alien to us as today’s Earth would be to someone from the 1930s. Imagine extraterrestrial observers from a distant galaxy observing Earth—they might perceive a deluge of digital signals as the planet’s hallmark.
Conversely, our quest for alien life signatures has been relentless. Historically, scientists primarily concentrated on the energy signatures of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations.
However, recently, a team contemplated if extraterrestrials could detect signals from our mobile towers. (Their consensus was skeptical, given current tech paradigms.)
Yet, we’re still refining our capabilities to effectively pinpoint extraterrestrial existence. Rushby opines that this study marks a progressive stride.
Astrobiologists, especially those on the lookout for alien life, are increasingly focusing on the nature and volume of data intrinsic to different life forms. Ultimately, we might discern a greater alignment between natural communication systems and our digital networks.