I hope you’ve been able to recover properly since my recent post about loudspeaker blew your mind, because here’s another post that will make your brain short circuit.
Let’s have ourselves a little thought experiment. Imagine a website. That shouldn’t be too hard, since you’re on a website right now. Now imagine that the website generates a black and white image every time it’s visited. The first visit to the website generates an all white image. When the next visitor to the website comes to the website, the pixel in the upper left corner of the image is colored black instead of white. The second visitor enters the website, and the pixel next to it is also painted black.
This continues until the entire image is black. Then, when the next visitor enters the website, the pixel in the upper left corner is color white again. The image is now entirely black, except for the white picture in the upper left corner. More visitors enter the site, and it continues to generate images until it has generated every possible combination of black and white pixels on in an image.
The website now has images of everything that ever was and ever will be!
Garbage and Gems
Among the images there will be a lot of garbage of course. The vast majority of them will probably just look like noise. But the site will also generate some truly amazing images.
Looking at the images, you can relive your entire childhood, and your life up until the moment you’re reading this post. In fact, among the images there will be an image of you reading this post. There will also be images of what you’ll do immediately after you’re done, and everything you’ll do for the rest of your life. You’ll even find an image of your inevitable death, with the time and date stamped in the lower-right corner.
And it doesn’t stop there.
The image collection will contain the entire visual history of everyone that ever lived and will ever live. You’ll find scans of every book ever written, every magazine every published, and screenshots of every single website ever made. If you put the images in a particular order and look at them in quick succession, you’ll accidentally create a video. In fact, you’ll be able to watch every movie ever made.
The collection will also include images and video of every historical event since the dawn of man until the sun sets on humanity for the final time. Take the Kennedy assassination for instance. It’s perhaps the modern historical even that has generated the most conspiracy theories. What if you had images of everything? If you want to know if there was a shooter on the grassy knoll, you’ll find the answer among the images.
Unfortunately, you’ll also find an image of an elephant on the grassy knoll, an alien with a ray-gun, and Kennedy himself firing a rifle. Even if you have images of everything, you won’t be able to prove anything with them.
I’m sure you agree that generating every possible image ever is an absolutely amazing idea. But is it actually possible to do it in practice?
Sadly, no. Creating all the images will generate an unbelievable amount of data, and take an unimaginable long time. Even if we limit the resolution and the color depth of the generated images considerably, the numbers will be astronomical.
If we cap the image resolution to 32 x 32 pixels and only use 1 bit color depth (black and white), we have to generate ~1.79x10^308 images before we’re done1. That’s a 309 decimal digit number, which is so huge it’s impossible to even imagine. To have something to compare it to, you can try to wrap your head around the fact that there are approximately 1x10^80 atoms in the known universe.
Generating the images will also take a long time. If it takes 1 second to generate a single image, it will take 5.7×10^300 years generate all the images. The universe is roughly 1.38x10^10 years old.
To summarize, we’ll never ever generate every possible image ever. But it’s am interesting mental exercise. Am I the first person on the internet to think of this? Of course not. There are plenty of other posts and resources you can read to have your mind properly blown.
Update (two months later): In an unexpected turn of events, I just discovered that I had this exact epiphany in 2011, and wrote a post about it: Everything Ever.
Feel free to verify the math, because my calculus skills have degraded quite a lot over the years. ↩︎
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