“I have heard articulate speech produced by sunlight. I have heard a ray of the sun laugh and cough and sing.” – Alexander Graham Bell

The speed of communication was once constrained by geography and how fast a human, horse, bird, train, or ship could traverse it. Then a new technology took over. It started in 1844 with a terse message transmitted over telegraph wire. Now each day, billions of messages, articles, photographs, and videos criss-cross the globe in fractions of a second—carried on light beams.

We rarely consider the near-miracle this implies. How exactly does a message go from New York to Tokyo? What invisible paths does it follow? And how does it share the line with all the other messages sent at the same time?

Alongside computing, another high-tech revolution was running in parallel. This was the quest to transform information to light, light to information—and to transmit enormous flows of data around the globe in the blink of an eye. Although it doesn’t extend all the way to most homes (yet), fiber optic cable forms the backbone of the Internet. And for good reason.

“In 1977, the first optical fiber communications systems carried 45 million bits per second—at that time an astronomical amount of information. And it turned out that that wasn’t enough,” explains Bell Labs’ Andy Chraplyvy in a recent video. “Now, a single fiber can carry up to 10 [trillion bits] of information per second. And yet we’ve gotten to the point where that’s not going to be enough.”

What is 10 trillion bits in everyday terms? First, divide by eight to get 1.25 trillion bytes (terabytes). This is equivalent to a few hundred movies, a few hundred thousand images—or Ray Kurzweil’s estimate of the memory capacity of the human brain. That’s a lot of data for a single fiber as thin as a human hair.

And still, Chraplyvy is right. It’s not going to be enough.

Even as the digital world has expanded from text to images to video—Internet connections are still confined to roughly a third of the global population. Some believe most of the rest of the world will be online by 2020. Add futuristic new digital mediums like shared virtual worlds and…are we headed for a meltdown?

Check out this fascinating Bell Labs video to find out.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.