Every four or six years, the General Conference on Weights and Measures (Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures, CGPM) takes place in Sèvres, about ten kilometers (six miles) from Paris. On this occasion, Member State delegates analyze all aspects of the metric system, present as it is in the daily lives of the majority of the world’s population (the only countries that do not officially use it are Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States). The first meeting took place in 1889, targeting only the meter and the kilogram. The 6th edition, held in 1921, saw the focus of discussions widen to cover all dimensions of the metric system.

Some of the most commonly used units in the personal computing world — such as “mega”, “giga”, and “tera” — were confirmed at the 1960 Conference. In 1975 and 1991, additional prefixes were created to cater for increasing magnitudes: “peta” and “exa” in 1975; “zetta” and “yotta” in 1991. From one unit to the next, the value increases by a factor of a thousand. It should be noted that there is a difference between the value set by the decimal system, which is 1,000, and the value used by the binary system, which is 2¹⁰=1024.

To understand the magnitude of these numbers and their impact on global data traffic, here are a few examples. A high-resolution photo takes up about 2 megabytes (equivalent to nearly 1,800 pages of text), while a seven-minute high-resolution video takes up about 1 gigabyte (almost 900,000 pages of text, or around 250 songs stored in MP3 format). In the year 2000, with 10 terabytes (or 10,240 gigabytes), it was possible to store the contents of the 26 million books of the United States’ Library of Congress, considered the largest in the world. It is estimated that Google processes more than 150 petabytes of data daily (a single petabyte is equivalent to nearly 950 billion pages of text) and that all the words uttered since the dawn of mankind can be stored in 5 exabytes — approximately 215 million Blu-Ray discs. One zettabyte equals 250 billion DVDs, and finally 1 yottabyte — the largest prefix today — amounts to a trillion terabytes.

Reports released by U.S. computer networking device company Cisco throughout 2017 estimate that between 2016 and 2021 monthly data traffic for mobile devices alone will increase sevenfold, going from about 85 exabytes per year to nearly 600 exabytes per year — an annualized growth of 47%. Total data traffic should nearly triple, going from 1.2 zettabytes per year in 2016 to 3.3 zettabytes per year in 2021. Assuming these numbers will continue to grow, we are likely going to need new prefixes to represent the unimaginable amount of data that shall travel through data networks on a daily basis.

To gain even more insight into the amount of information produced at all times, media consultants Lori Lewis and Chadd Callahan compiled data on what was happening on the Internet at a single minute. Take March 2019, for example: About 188 million emails were sent, 4.5 million videos were watched on YouTube, 1,000,000 users logged in to Facebook, 3.8 million searches were carried out through Google, 694,000 hours of videos were streamed via Netflix, 87,500 people were tweeting, $997,000 were spent on online purchases, and 390,000 apps were downloaded for Apple and Android smartphones. Again: this all took place in a mere sixty seconds.

But that is not all — we must also consider the universe of data generated by the growing number of Internet of Things devices, previously discussed here. With this colossal volume of information being permanently created and updated, it becomes imperative to develop tools and technologies capable of dealing with data analysis and interpretation. Next time, we will discuss the role of Big Data techniques in these processes. See you then.

Founder at GRIDS Capital, Award-winning author of “Present Future: Business, Science, and the Deep Tech Revolution”, Twitter @guyperelmuter

Founder at GRIDS Capital, Award-winning author of “Present Future: Business, Science, and the Deep Tech Revolution”, Twitter @guyperelmuter