Cow-Epiphany-4Recent 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Much of the data stored on outdated mediums like VHS tapes, vinyl records, cassette tapes and floppy disks has already been lost.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+ 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 needed 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. The 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.

“Altering the informational code of life will alter life itself!” 

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.


By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything



14 Responses to “The Great Cow Epiphany and the Six Immutable Laws of Information”

Comments List

  1. Daniel Nathaniel

    Alright I'll be the one to go low ball and say that the title should have been "The Great Cow Epiphany and the Six Im-moo-table Laws of Information." Yeah, I went there. I feel bad now :)
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>David Niven Miller</a>

    "Without humans, information is meaningless." Whoa... every animal is able to interpret the information in its environment and respond accordingly. Arguably, most other animals do a better job than humans. There is also the matter of AI. Pattern recognition programs sometimes better their human masters, and in the near future will trump them. I agree that everything in the universe is a mass of information. But perhaps it is somewhat limiting to say that only humans can put meaning to it?
    • FuturistSpeaker

      David, Thanks for bringing this up. Yes, animals, plants, birds, fish, insects, and even one celled animals all derive meaning from their surrounding information. It would probably be more appropriate to say that “Without humans, information is valueless.” Since humans are the ones that place economic value on things. But even animals value survival and information determines which animals survive and which ones don't. That said, we live in a human-centric world and without humans, there would be no one to care whether one animal survives, or another feels it has a purpose. Similarly, AI has no purpose or intention without humans. Yes, it can have preprogrammed purpose but it's not the same. So perhaps it would be better phrased, "Without human, information is meaningless... because we won't be here to care." Futurist Thomas Frey
  3. Kevin Weller

    1. True 2. False (see 2nd law of thermodynamics) 3. True, except any complete history is probably lost (perhaps a few salient details can be gleaned from present configuration) 4. True for us. Other than animals and hypothetical AIs, there may be aliens out there. 5. Not sure what this one means, but if it refers to genetic engineering, then yes. 6. I'd rephrase to say knowledge, as a usefully culled body of information, is the lifeblood of civilization.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Hi Eric, The changing world of information thoroughly intrigues me, but at best, I'm just an outsider looking in. When I use the term "information," I'm referring to any meaningful fragments of data that can be gleaned from an object both now and in the future. But even as I write these words, I feel certain the definition is incomplete. I love the phrase that famed songwriter Bob Dylan uses, “I accept chaos, I’m not sure whether it accepts me.” Futurist Thomas Frey
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Donald Beagle</a>

    Kevin Weller's comment that #2 is wrong because of the 2nd law of thermodynamics is worth further reflection. I'd point interested readers to the Scientific American article by Harvard physicist David Layzer, "The Arrow of Time." (1975; V.233 N.6, pp. 56--). Layzer explores the flow of information along time's arrow using the analogy of probability fluid flowing through phase-space. A simple formula can specify the information needed to describe the fluid in a macro-cube of phase-space, & that does seem to disappear over time as per the 2nd law. But when the macro-cube is subdivided into equal constituent micro-cubes, the fluid's flow-distribution in each micro-cube can be described by exactly the same formula yielding exactly the same total quantity of information. Layzer concludes that information does not "disappear," but trickles down from macro-structures into constituent micro-structures. I then published an article pointing out that this result is essentially no different than physicist David Bohm's concept of "implicate order," where information about an entire image is encoded into each constituent subsection, as in a hologram ("Libraries and the Implicate Order;" LIBRI: INTERNATIONAL LIBRARY REVIEW; Copenhagen: Munksgaard. 1988; V38 N.1;pp. 26-44.)Thomas Frey's is likely correct. The 2nd law of thermodynamics is currently much like Newton's law of gravity; it still accurately predicts motion of planets, for example, but turns out to be incomplete (and somewhat misleading) when applied to the extremes of the very small & very large. Just as Einstein eventually superseded Newton, someone will likely follow Layzer's lead and articulate a new law that will supersede the current 2nd law.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Donald and Kevin, Thanks for weighing in on these topics. We live in a world where these seems to be an exception to every rule, and laws are meant to be broken. Last year I went into greater detail on the topic, "All information, ever created, is still in existence." I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, but I love the question Caltech Professor Kip Thorne likes to ask. "A thousand years from now, what things will be possible, and what things will not?" Does the "2nd immutable law of information" somehow trump the "2nd law of thermodynamics?" Only time will tell. In all likelihood, there will be little attention paid to either 1,000 years from now. Futurist Thomas Frey
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Bo Gulledge</a>

    I like Eliyahu Goldratt's simple definition of information, "Information is the answer to the question asked." Data can yield many different questions depending on what question gets asked. A lot of possible information awaits in data. We just haven't asked those particular questions yet. The cow as information reminds me of "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy." Here's a blurb from Wikipedia that sums it up nicely: "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer, Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. Deep Thought points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never actually knew what the Question was. When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, Deep Thought says that it cannot; however, it can help to design an even more powerful computer that can. This new computer will incorporate living beings into the "computational matrix" and will run for ten million years. It is revealed as being the planet Earth"
  6. Kevin Weller

    I'm still not convinced that thermodynamics doesn't apply. Even a hologram loses resolution when subdivided, and I'm guessing that loss would become pretty thorough when you get to Planck dimensions. I have heard that reversibility applies to some levels of description and not others, but I doubt that would solve any useful problems. Still, I'm no physicist, and would love to see current research and/or speak to a practicing physicist about it. But even if I'm right, there is still much value to be gained from the untapped information yet available to us.
  7. Mike Spalding

    I think that current science shows that the brain doesn't store information about an event, but instead stores the sensory and emotional inputs that happened during that event. When you remember an event, it reconstructs that event from the sensory inputs. This appears to be equivalent to storing the cow rather than storing information about the cow.
  8. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Brett McLaughlhin</a>

    Another thought-provoking article! Thank you for writing it. I've thought a lot about said cow, and I'm not sure that I agree that the cow IS all the information about the cow -- for two reasons: 1. As some Kevin Weller mentioned, there's the *history* of the cow. Presumably the cow is the authoritative source of current cowness, but that doesn't mean that it contains all the cow ever was -- there could be many paths the cow could have taken that would bring it to its current bovine state. 2. I think that information is effectively infinite, if only because at its heart, any information is a comparison of sorts. In the case of the cow, could can theoretically compare any subset of the cow to any other subset of the cow, in virtually limitless ways -- every possible method of comparison is information. One might say "Well sure, but all that information is *derivable* from the cow" -- so if you have the cow, then you effectively get all of that information. I'm not sure if I agree. Consider this: The works of Shakespeare are all derivable from the alphabet, and the works of Mozart are technically derivable from 88 piano keys -- but I feel that misses the spirit of the information. So I guess I propose that the cow's potential information is far more than the cow, for two reasons: To a minor degree because of its lost history; and to a major degree because of the virtually limitless ways the cow's data can be compared -- all of which constitute further, um, cowformation. :)

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