Who was Claude Shannon? [Sunday Brunch]

Who was Claude Shannon? [Sunday Brunch]

Who was Claude Shannon? [Sunday Brunch]

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April 30, 2016 marked 100 years since the birth of someone that has impacted our lives like few others, yet he may be the most significant person we do not know.

Extraordinary individuals change the course of humanity. Without them, the world would be a very different place. They take their place in history and culture, forever known and remembered. However, a few pass through history unknown to the general public. One of these individuals, Claude Shannon, is perhaps the most significant person we do not know.

Claude Elwood Shannon was born April 30, 1916, in Petrosky, Michigan. Like so many others who shaped the 20th century, he left his small-town roots to make his mark in the world. He started the journey by studying math and engineering at the University of Michigan and then MIT. The digital world originated in his paper considered to be the Magna Carta of the information age, A Mathematical Theory of Information, written at the legendary Bell Labs in 1948. The academic and research communities in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, and Mathematics revere him. He has become known as the Father of the Information Age. However, very few in the general public have ever heard of Claude Shannon. Shannon's character was such that he treasured anonymity over fame and when in the early 1950s he did achieve some recognition, it disturbed him more than pleased him. In many ways, he was the reluctant father of his legacy.

The Genius
We are analog creatures - we communicate with each other through our senses via analog signals to see, speak and hear. Our inventions to communicate our thoughts to others - the telegraph, the radio, the telephone, television and even computers were initially transmitted via analog signals or computed via mechanical switches. Where there is a signal, there is noise. As the signal is copied and recopied over a long distance more noise is added degrading communication and losing information. This degradation is not recoverable. Hiss, snow and miscommunication result.

The problem in communication that Shannon encountered was how to reproduce a message from one point to another without this loss. The message could be a word, number, speech, music, image, video or anything we want to communicate from one point to another. Math allows us to see the complexity that results in the world through the lens of simple, elegant and beautiful equations. Shannon's genius was to unify all of these messages and even the medium of transmission into mathematical terms, independent of the message and the transmission medium. He realized that any message could be defined as its binary equivalent of zeros and ones across some digits he called bits necessary to encode the message. With the application of this single idea, our world would transition from analog to digital.

He went on to quantify the sending of the message through a channel. He determined every channel will have a maximum rate of transmission which today we call the bandwidth. He found that keeping the transmission rate below this capacity and using error correcting schemes would allow for perfect communication eliminating the impact of noise. Before this, the primary method to try to overcome noise was to boost the energy of transmission or keep repeating the same message. Essentially like speaking louder in a noisy, overcrowded bar or saying the same thing over and over.

Shannon also knew that messages tend to have commonalities and redundancy. So determining the probability of these excesses provide the basis for data compression. His mathematical ideas in another paper also form the basis of encryption and cryptography. Even before all of this his Master's Thesis in 1938 considered to be the most influential in the 20th century combined Boolean Algebra and Electric Circuit Design to incorporate logic gates of on and off to perform calculations and make decisions. A concept later used in the first computers and all the ones since.

Theory and research lead to development which then leads to products. Ideas created with little more than a pencil, paper, and the human brain, inspired the creation of the material world. E=mC2 resulted in the Manhattan Project which led to the nuclear bomb, nuclear energy, and nuclear medicine. Shannon's equations and mathematical ideas resulted in digital computers, digital signal processing, data compression, data encryption, networking, data storage and the modern digital world. His ideas were the genesis for the brilliant engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs that would create Intel, Cisco, Qualcomm, Oracle, Apple, Microsoft, Google and the technology they gave the world. It's a list that is never ending and will keep going.
The Legacy

When we FaceTime with a loved one, listen to music to relax after a busy day, text our kids to be at a pick up location, gorge on a season of Game of Thrones, find our way on the road to the desired destination or pay for a purchase using our phone, we use the technology that was inspired by Shannon's work. A globally connected world, life-saving biotechnology, poverty reduction resulting from the access to information, productivity that allows many to have the material improvements in life that once were not even available to kings and our ability to work smart and efficient were also all inspired by Shannon's ideas.

As so much of our modern world connects to the digital revolution, it's reasonable to connect much of it back to the Father of the Digital Revolution. This revolution would probably have occurred anyway, but surely it would have been delayed by many years without Claude Shannon. Most discoveries arise after many individuals compete to be the first to come up with the big idea. Shannon's peers say he was the only one in the game and may have been 30 years ahead of his time. How rare it is to be the only one with a thought so powerful.

Through one of the cruel ironies that too often define life, Shannon spent the last part of his life losing the fight to Alzheimer's. The disease was eating away at his ability to communicate. But the life he lived and the legacy he left behind touches all of us every day and allows us to communicate in ways never dreamed.
Thank you, Dr. Shannon.

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