I found myself wondering recently how many photographs have ever been taken. I recognize that this is a little weird. However, it is what geeks do. I knew that there would be an answer on the web, that someone besides me had wondered about it before. So with a little searching I found that everything that I could find written about the subject dates back to a 2011 blog posting by 1000memories.com, which estimated the number in 2011 to be about 3.4 trillion (3.5 x 10 ^12 for us geeks). I’ve come up with a slightly different number, but close enough for government work and it’s interesting in that it really demonstrates Kurweil’s concept of the “Singularity.” The Singularity is the view that technology is growing so rapidly that it’s becoming essentially infinite and going off the scale. So let’s have some fun and look at this.
To begin with 100memories.com uses as the number of cameras in the world an estimate by media expert Tomi Ahonen at 2.2 billion in 2011. In 2012 Ahonen revised this estimate to be 4.2 billion cell-phone base cameras and about a quarter of that, say 1.0 billion non cell-phone based cameras. So let’s take this number to be a total of 5.2 billion cameras. The next thing that we have to ask is how many pictures are taken each year per camera. 1000memories.com estimated this in 2011 to be 150 photographs per camera. As I’ll show you in a bit there is reason to believe that the rate of growth is on the order of 16% a year; so lets go with 175. So we have something like 910 billion photographs being taken each year at the start of 2013. Wow!
Alright, so where do we go from here? So let’s remember that the first photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1827. That’s 186 years ago.
The problem is a lot like compound interest. Suppose that your great-great grandfather had gone into a bank in 1827 and offered to deposit a dollar with the proviso that the money would not be taken out of the account until January 1, 2013 but that he wanted 16% interest. How much would you have today? Yes, you guessed it $910 billion. The growth is shown in Figure 1, years 1827 to 2013. I’ve taken it back to photographs per year.
The Figure doesn’t show the early years very well. I’d have to expand the scale or make it logarithmic. But notice how it explodes as we get close to 2013. That explosion in math is known as a singularity. Hence “The Singularity.” Kurzweil generally places the singularity at around 2025, for various reasons. All sorts of technologies follow this pattern towards blinding almost inconceivable growth. Take our calculation out to 2025 and we’ll be talking 5.4 trillion photographs per year!
Getting back to our original question of how many photographs have ever been taken, to calculate this you need to add up the number for each year since 1827. That is you have to calculate the area under the curve in Figure 1. This number is 6.62 trillion.* Pretty impressive!
*Last year Facebook estimated that people were uploading 250 million photographs a day. This is about 91 billion photographs a year or about 10 % of the photographs taken in the world last year. Facebook current has 220 billion images stored. That’s 3.5 % of all the pictures ever taken.