Every day, humans produce 2.4 quintillion bytes of data, and this doubles every two years or so at the moment. Most of this is now stored in “the cloud”, which might be invisible to us, but is actually in massive data warehouses all around the world. If this continues at this pace until 2060, every single part of the planet will need to be covered by data warehouses.

Of course, we will find ways to store data more efficiently and to reduce the size of hard drive space. But… add to all of this the energy and water used, and we have a massive problem in the making.

One possible solution is to store data in DNA (no… not inside your body, but in DNA stored in controlled conditions). All of the world’s data could be stored in a location the size of a small motor car, using almost no energy, giving off almost no heat, and lasting for 50,000 years before decaying. It sounds like an incredible solution. And it is coming soon.



Come with me to the future, to 2060, where every single piece of land on this planet is covered with a hard drive. That’s what’s going to happen if we don’t do something about storage and the data that we generate.

My name is Graham Codrington, this is Throw Forward Thursday and we’ve got a problem with data. Every single day, we generate about two and a half quintillion bytes of data, and that’s enough data to fill about 50 million iPhones every single day.

Most of that data these days is stored somewhere in the cloud, and I know that when you put it in the cloud, you don’t see where it goes, but the cloud is an actual physical place. These are data centres dotted all around the world. Massive facilities with incredibly large hard drive spaces that need to be kept chilled, and we use lots of air conditioning, we use lots of water to keep all of those data centres working around the world.

Some estimates say about one and a half percent of all of the world’s electricity right now is taken up by data centres, but we keep doubling the amount of data we produce every two years at the moment. And if we continue like that and we don’t find more efficient ways of storing our data by 2060, we’re going to need the entire planet to be covered in hard drives.

OK, so we can’t do that, we need some solutions. Some solutions will be better ways of storing information, and reducing file sizes, although that doesn’t really happen at the moment, every time you buy a new machine, bigger hard drives, right? The other way would be to make hard drive smaller, but we are nearing capacity on that. So, maybe the other thing that we could do is change where and how we store our information, and that is today’s Throw Forward Thursday. We need to learn how to store information in DNA.

If you remember from school, the DNA has got four ACTG ways in which it stores its own information. We can encode the way we currently work with data, which is binaries that’s noughts and ones. OK, now I’ve lost a few of you, we don’t have to get into the nerdy details. I’ll put some links into the show notes, so if you’re watching a video, look for those links. If you’re listening to the podcast, it’s there in the show notes. There are a few things if you’re interested to go and read.

We know that this technology works. We have been able to do it already in experimental form, where we take the binary system, the noughts and ones we currently use, which are put onto magnetic hard drives, and we reencode that into the ACGT of DNA and that dramatically reduces the space that we need to use, also dramatically then reduces the size. It also means that it doesn’t wear out. Magnetic hard drives wear out after about ten years or so. DNA well, we know that we can find DNA that’s 500 years old and it’s still intact, so who knows how long it goes for? And maybe, more importantly, DNA uses basically no energy. It’s not zero, but it’s basically no energy, which then deals with the water and the electricity and everything else costs of our current systems.

Can we do it? Yes, we can. We’ve shown that we’re capable of doing it, we’ve got to learn how to do it more effectively, and if we do, we can basically take the entire world’s storage space right now. If we put it all into DNA format, it would fit into a hard drive about the size of a small car that uses no energy and has no carbon footprint. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

So, storing our data in DNA in the future, that’s where we’re going. It needs to happen before 2060, probably before 2040, to be honest. If we are going to mitigate some of those climate change and carbon footprint issues as well.

Storage and DNA throw forward Thursday. Always fun, and always interesting.

Join me next week as we fly into the future again and see what’s going on there.


Further Reading:

* Data Centers Are Unsustainable. We Need to Store Data in DNA.
* DNA storage


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Graeme Codrington, is an internationally recognized futurist, specializing in the future of work. He helps organizations understand the forces that will shape our lives in the next ten years, and how we can respond in order to confidently stay ahead of change. Chat to us about booking Graeme to help you Re-Imagine and upgrade your thinking to identify the emerging opportunities in your industry.

For the past two decades, Graeme has worked with some of the world’s most recognized brands, travelling to over 80 countries in total, and speaking to around 100,000 people every year. He is the author of 5 best-selling books, and on faculty at 5 top global business schools.


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