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Living things accumulate and reproduce information. That’s really the driving principle behind life, and behind evolution.
But humans have invented a new method of accumulating and reproducing information. It’s digital information, and it’s growing at an astonishing speed. The number of people using the internet is growing, as are the devices connected to it through the Internet of Things.
Digital information can copy itself perfectly, increases in copy number with every download or view, can be modified (mutated), or combined to generate novel information packets. And it can be expressed through artificial intelligence. These are characteristics similar to living things. So we should probably start thinking about digital technology as being like an organism that can evolve.
Digital information replicates with virtually no energy costs, and has rapid generation times. Artificial intelligence can beat us in chess and on game shows. What’s more, it’s faster than us, smarter than us in some arenas, and is already in charge of activities that are too complex for us to do efficiently.
To biologists, that sounds like the digital world might be able to out-compete us, as we argue in a paper published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
Any newly evolving entity can cause upheavals for life on Earth. In fact, all the major evolutionary transitions in the history of life have come about via changes to information storage and transmission.
And the digital revolution has certainly changed the way information is stored and transmitted.
In the 3.7 billion years since life began, information in living things (DNA) has reached the equivalent of about 1037 bytes. Digital information will grow to this size in 100 years. That’s an evolutionary eye-blink.
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