How Big Is The Digital Universe?

28th June, 2019 by

It can be easy to forget that every piece of data generated by, uploaded to or stored on the internet adds to the sum of the digital universe. From forgotten blog sites and streaming media files to Deep Web databases and Dark Web content, digital content is being generated and accumulated at unprecedented rates.

The digital universe is not merely expanding online, it’s expanding offline, too. Data silos, internal servers, and personal hard drives are all crammed with files and folders. Think about the number of electronic devices in your home right now, and the information they’re storing. Old smartphones and cameras in the basement, games consoles, and smart TVs in the lounge, web-enabled fridges, and ovens in the kitchen…they’re all storing reams of information.

Life, the (digital) universe, and everything

Accurately quantifying the sheer volume of digital content in existence is impossible. Nevertheless, market intelligence firm IDC has attempted to estimate the total amount of digital data which will be in existence next year. Their figure is 40 zettabytes – 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of information, also known as 40 sextillion bytes. It’s impossible for the human mind to quantify the vast amount of data this encompasses. Trite descriptions like ‘the equivalent of ten quadrillion MP3 files’ don’t do justice to IDC’s prediction.

Even more remarkably, it’s estimated that 90% of the digital universe has been generated in the last two years alone. In 2012, IBM calculated that man and machine were collectively generating 2.5 exabytes (2.5 billion gigabytes) of material per day. It’s believed that this figure had increased 20-fold by 2018. And the pace of growth will accelerate even further, as more internet-enabled citizens download greater volumes of content, while simultaneously uploading more personal information than ever before.

This raises an interesting question about what to do with the oceans of digital records being generated – especially by the Internet of Things. Any electrical object with the ability to send or receive data can be classified as part of the IoT, and device numbers are spiraling. It’s been estimated there will be 75 billion IoT devices by 2025, adding a few zeroes onto the size of the digital universe. In case you were wondering, a thousand zettabytes become a yottabyte, while a thousand of these comprise a brontobyte.

Digital hardcore

If we do end up with 75 billion devices uploading proprietary data to the internet in a few years’ time, two things will need to happen. Firstly, our internet connections must improve, whether that’s accomplished by LED-powered LiFi, satellite broadband from space or 5G mobile connectivity. Secondly, some pretty hardcore processing power will be required to process this tsunami of digital information, preventing it from becoming so much discarded cyber waste. 

Quantum computing may represent a possible solution since quantum processors can simultaneously process data in multiple ways. This makes them far more efficient than conventional classical computers and ideally suited to extracting useful findings from digital data being generated on an unimaginable scale.