The amount of data has increased so much in recent years that the metric system of measurement is on the brink of not being able to properly describe how much of it there is in the world.
That's what Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Centre for Digital Business in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management told the audience during his keynote at the SAS Premier Business Leadership Series 2013 conference in Orlando, Florida.
Since the 1980s, data has grown exponentially, amounting to the largest figures being discussed going from terabytes to petabytes to zettabytes, which McAfee describing today as "the zettabyte era". The Yottabyte era will follow this, but after that, there's no unit of measurement capable of describing the scope of data after that.
"I don't want to alarm anybody, but we are about to run out of metric system. We're here in the Zettabyte era, we've got one left, we've got this prefix called yotta and after that we just run out of ways to talk about what's going on," he said.
"What's amazing as we sit here is the metric system is about to be insufficient for describing the amount of data out there in the world," MacAfee continued.
"You can imagine the big data geeks have formed a working group to address the situation and I'm here to tell you the leading candidate is ‘hella' and we're entering the 'hellabtye age'."
McAfee joked that his example might sound "cute" but it raised the serious point of the sheer amount of data that's now being generated across the globe thanks to the rapid rise in technology in recent years.
"What I hope it gets across is this amazing acceleration in the amount of digital stuff there is in the world. And what I want to try and convince everybody of is there is amazing benefit and insight to gain from this astonishingly large universe of digital stuff out there," he told the audience, emphasising that the numbers are completely unprecedented.
"The volumes of data are completely unprecedented and we're running out of ways to talk about them. But its not just the volume its how quickly it is all coming at us, the torrent of digital data is unprecented and the flow is getting bigger and not smaller over time."
McAfee went onto describe how data obtained now is more varied and "weird" than it was even just ten to fifteen years ago, with data no longer just being restricted to being columns of text and numbers, but coming in a variety of multimedia formats.
"Search data didn't really exist 15 years ago and, more recently, weird short URLs like Bitly can tell us about what's going on and the devices that we carry put out a digital exhaust trail that's pretty unbelievable," he said.
McAfee added that smartphones have been one of the biggest contributors to the rise in the amount of data in the world, suggesting that the amount of data that they are generating is also like something out of science fiction from just a few years ago.
"A phone has on it a GPS sensor, a Wi-Fi sensor, an accelerometer, two different cameras, a microphone - it's just a Star Trek tricorder that we're all carrying around and there at least hundreds of millions of these on the planet and they're all contributing to this deluge of data," he said.
Last month, another MIT academic, data scientist Alex ‘Sandy' Pentland, argued that we're in the "decade of data" and the ensuing data revolution will dwarf that caused by the internet and change society across the world for the better.