Saturday, April 13, 2024

"My Meeting With Claude Shannon, Father of the Information Age"

 From Cross-Check:

No scientist has an impact-to-fame ratio greater than Claude Elwood Shannon, the inventor of information theory, who died in 2001 at the age of 84. Information theory underpins all our digital technologies, including the chatbots that have gotten us so excited lately. You can see Shannon’s ideas glinting within the “it from bit” interpretation of quantum mechanics; the “conservation of information” principle of physics (which implies “conservation of ignorance”); and the integrated information theory model of consciousness. I profiled Shannon in Scientific American in 1990 after visiting him at his home outside Boston. Below is an edited version of that profile followed by excerpts from our conversation. —John Horgan

Claude Shannon can't sit still. We’re in the living room of his home north of Boston, an edifice called Entropy House, and I’m trying to get him to recall how he came up with information theory. Shannon, who is a boyish 73, with a shy grin and snowy hair, is tired of dwelling on his past. He wants to show me his gadgets.

Over the mild protests of his wife, Betty, he leaps from his chair and disappears into another room. When I catch up with him, he proudly shows me his seven chess-playing machines, gasoline-powered pogo-stick, hundred-bladed jackknife, two-seated unicycle and countless other marvels.

Some of his personal creations--such as a mechanical mouse that navigates a maze, a juggling W. C. Fields mannequin and a computer that calculates in Roman numerals--are dusty and in disrepair. But Shannon seems as delighted with his toys as a 10-year-old on Christmas morning.

Is this the man who, at Bell Labs in 1948, wrote “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” the Magna Carta of the digital age? Whose work is described as the greatest “in the annals of technological thought” by Bell Labs executive Robert Lucky?

Yes. The inventor of information theory also invented a rocket-powered Frisbee and a theory of juggling, and he is still remembered at Bell Labs for juggling while riding a unicycle through the halls. “I’ve always pursued my interests without much regard for financial value or value to the world,” Shannon says cheerfully. “I’ve spent lots of time on totally useless things.”

Shannon’s delight in mathematical abstractions and gadgetry emerged during his childhood in Michigan, where he was born in 1916. He played with radio kits and erector sets and enjoyed solving mathematical puzzles. “I was always interested, even as a boy, in cryptography and things of that sort,” Shannon says. One of his favorite stories was “The Gold Bug,” an Edgar Allan Poe mystery about a mysterious encrypted map.

As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Shannon majored in mathematics and electrical engineering. In his MIT master’s thesis, he showed how an algebra invented by George Boole—which deals with such concepts as “if X or Y happens but not Z, then Q results”—could represent the workings of switches and relays in electronic circuits.

The implications of the paper were profound: Circuit designs could be tested mathematically before they were built rather than through tedious trial and error. Engineers now routinely design computer hardware and software, telephone networks and other complex systems with the aid of Boolean algebra. ("I've always loved that word, Boolean," Shannon says.)...


Our most recent post referencing Claude was actually focused on his wife:

"Betty Shannon, Unsung Mathematical Genius"
In the outro from February 4's "Why This AI Moment May Be the Real Deal" I mentioned:

Finally, Shannon's second wife, Betty, was Claude's collaborator and went deep into some very fancy math and science, right there with him. I should probably do a post on her.

Another post that may be of interest:

The Bit Bomb: The True Nature of Information
The subject of this article, Claude Shannon has a couple interesting connections to finance/investing/trading beyond 'just' creating information theory (along with MIT's Norbert Wiener who was coming in on a different angle of attack), more after the jump....