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The futurist: The great cow epiphany


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Recent comments by Vint Cerf, vice president of Google and one of the founding fathers of the Internet, about the long-term viability of our data has many wondering what will happen to our digital information over the next 100, 200 or even 1,000 years.

At the heart of the problem is something he refers to as “bit-rot,” decaying levels of information that can be found in our digital storage systems. Much of the data stored on outdated mediums like VHS tapes, vinyl records, cassette tapes and floppy disks has already been lost. We currently have no usable form of storage technology capable of maintaining its integrity for centuries on end. Without a breakthrough in this area, humanity’s most important memories – videos, photos, books, writings, and thousands of other informational sources – may indeed be lost.

Sadly, paper remains as our most survivable form of information over the next 100-plus years.

But here’s where that whole issue goes sideways. Swiss scientists recently developed a process for encasing DNA in glass and chilling it down as a way to preserve data encoded in it for upwards of a million years. DNA is an ultra dense storage medium with the potential of holding 455 exabytes of data per gram of DNA. Since all of the information that exists in the world today is still under 10,000 exabytes, we have the potential of storing all of the world’s data in less than a cup of DNA.

Yes, we still have a ways to go before encasing DNA in glass and keeping it chilled for all eternity becomes practical, and we still have to develop efficient ways to store and retrieve information, but the DNA approach may indeed be the light we’re looking for at the end of this tunnel. With that in mind, I’d like to invite you along on a journey into the far reaches of future information. Come along as we create a few unusual scenarios surrounding the “six immutable laws of information.”

The Great Cow Epiphany

A few years back, I came to the conclusion that the total amount of information that we could glean from a cow was actually bigger than the cow itself. By this I mean every detail of both the inner and outer workings of a cow, along with every synapse firing, repositioning and interacting of cells, atoms and molecules. Unraveling every micro-facet of an object will produce massive amounts of information.

This means that if we somehow manage to extract every possible detail from of a cow, the storage medium needed to hold all of its information would actually be bigger than the cow itself By extension, if we extract every possible piece of information from the universe, it would only stand to reason that the storage medium need to hold it all would have to be bigger than the universe itself.

While this may seem to be an absurd notion, in light of my earlier calculation that all of the world’s information today could be stored in a single cup of DNA, it helped me put the information world into perspective.

Here’s where I got it wrong, which in turn led to my latest epiphany.

First, we have only discovered a super tiny fraction of all available information – less than one percent of one percent of one percent.

Second, information about a cow is not bigger than the cow -- it is the cow! All information, ever created regarding the cow, is already part of the cow. Rather than researching an external source, such as the great Wikipedia-compendium of all online cow information, we need only jack into the cow itself.

No, we are still a ways away from developing this kind of technology, but unless I miss my guess, it will soon become the holy grail of informational physicists.

Every object, along with every plant, animal, bolt of energy, block of air, or force of nature already contains every possible piece of information about itself. If this is indeed true, it means we have a very very long ways to go in discovering every possible tidbit and micro-tidbit of existing information.

The Grand Unified Information Theory – Six Immutable Laws

Over the past few days, I’ve replayed the Cow Epiphany over in my head many times hoping to grasp its far-reaching implications. Yes, it’s similar in many ways to The Matrix, but as a movie, it left out far too many details to be useful. Starting with this as a working theory, I’ve come to some crazy, perhaps even outrageous, conclusions. So without further buildup, here are the “six immutable laws of information.”

  1. The total universe of information is constantly expanding. Trillions of new pieces of information are being produced by the world’s 7 billion people every second of every day.
  2. All information, ever created, is still in existence. Answer to all of life’s questions already exists. It’s only a matter of knowing how to ask them and through what channel to pose the question.
  3. Every object is an informational source. Every object, cell, molecule, and atom already contains a complete history, functional attributes, and physical details of itself and its surroundings.
  4. Without humans, information is meaningless. Information itself is devoid of purpose, capability, emotion, and economic value.
  5. Altering the informational code of life will alter life itself. As we change the informational base of an object, we change the object itself.
  6. Information is the lifeblood of human civilization. The overall efficiency with which we are able to discover, store, and retrieve information is directly proportional to how advanced we become as a civilization.

Our ability to archive and retrieve information is critical. Past civilizations have fallen apart over a single information gap. Future civilizations will be as equally susceptible if we don’t find a viable super long-term solution. Over time, we will stop using storage mediums, and learn how to tap into the world itself (objects, cells, and molecules) on an informational level.

Final Thoughts

No we haven’t developed a “Vulcan Mind Meld” yet where we can place our hand on an object and instantly suck out all of the information and understand it. But that might not be as far fetched as it sounds.

Every cow-sized piece of information comes with more information about itself than we will ever be able to decipher. Our quest to discover new forms of information will be never-ending.

Much like the blood coursing through our bodies, information is the lifeblood of our economy, and a necessary food source for the human brain.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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