The math­e­mat­i­cal prodigy who gave the world ‘bits’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Gary An­der­son


Many peo­ple, most no­tably Al Gore, have claimed to be the fa­ther of the in­for­ma­tion age; but Claude Shan­non prob­a­bly de­serves the most credit. In 1948, he wrote an ar­ti­cle that is con­sid­ered to be the “Magna Carta” of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy. In their book “A Mind at Play,” Jimmy Son and Rob Good­man ex­plain how this nearly for­got­ten Amer­i­can ge­nius rev­o­lu­tion­ized the way we think about com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Shan­non was a math­e­mat­i­cal prodigy who could ac­tu­ally do things. As a boy in ru­ral Michi­gan, he turned barbed wire fences into tele­graphs. Later in life, he built the first chess play­ing com­puter as well as ro­bots and a jug­gling clown. All of this was done just for fun, but he was a le­git­i­mate Amer­i­can sci­en­tific gi­ant with mul­ti­ple ad­vanced de­grees in math and en­gi­neer­ing.

Claude Shan­non was of draft age when con­scrip­tion was in­tro­duced as Amer­ica re­luc­tantly stood on the brink of en­try into World War II. He was a per­son who did not like be­ing in large groups of peo­ple and re­al­ized that sol­dier­ing was not prob­a­bly a good fit. In­stead, he con­trib­uted to the war ef­fort by work­ing at the leg­endary Bell Labs skunk works and his ef­forts at cre­at­ing an un­break­able code con­trib­uted im­mea­sur­ably to vic­tory.

This book can be read on two lev­els. The first is a study of how an au­then­tic first-rate mind worked through the noise of com­mu­ni­ca­tions the­ory to cre­ate the the­o­ret­i­cal back­bone of the in­for­ma­tion age. For math­e­mat­i­cal id­iots such as my­self, the sec­tions on the math may be a lit­tle much.

How­ever, the story of Shan­non as a fas­ci­nat­ing hu­man be­ing is read­able and com­pelling. By 1937, he had fig­ured out that bi­nary switches were the key to the foun­da­tion of the dig­i­tal com­put­ing. In 1948, he wrote the bomb­shell “The Math­e­mat­i­cal The­ory of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions.” It in­tro­duced the con­cept of the “bit” and even­tu­ally changed the world. His aca­demic awards and rep­u­ta­tion were for­mi­da­ble and he be­came a le­gend in the rel­a­tively closed worlds of in­for­ma­tion math­e­mat­i­cal the­ory, but he re­mained mod­est and an in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter in his own right.

Like Ben Franklin, Shan­non’s work was play, and the two ac­tiv­i­ties were in­sep­a­ra­ble. One can imag­ine him com­ing up with a cryp­to­graphic so­lu­tion while work­ing on a chess prob­lem or bang­ing out a jazz tune. The au­thors ar­gue that he was a true gen­er­al­ist and they make a con­vinc­ing case of it.

Mr. Soni and Mr. Good­man are solid re­searchers; they bring Shan­non to life both as a sci­en­tist and an in­trigu­ing in­di­vid­ual. The au­thors make his story read­able as well as in­for­ma­tive. This was a guy who could jug­gle and ride a uni­cy­cle at the same time as be­ing a jazz en­thu­si­ast while lead­ing the world into the in­for­ma­tion age. He was an Amer­i­can orig­i­nal.

De­spite a failed early mar­riage to a left­ist ac­tivist in the 1930s, Shan­non went on to find the love of his life and be­came a de­voted hus­band and fa­ther. In later life, he was a pro­fes­sor of leg­endary pro­por­tions at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy un­til Alzheimer’s Dis­ease cut his pro­duc­tive life trag­i­cally short in 2001. I once did a book re­view of the life of Thomas Edison, and I found my­self de­spis­ing the man more with ev­ery turn of the page. That was not the case with Shan­non; he was a gen­uinely de­cent hu­man be­ing.

Shan­non be­lieved that ma­chines had the po­ten­tial to some­day sur­pass the hu­man brain in cog­ni­tive abil­ity with ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI). He en­vi­sioned the pos­si­bil­ity of a ma­chine like Big Blue de­feat­ing the world’s great­est chess player or the Wat­son AI beat­ing the likes of Ken Jen­nings on “Jeop­ardy.”

He saw that as a good thing, and he truly be­lieved that the tech­nolo­gies that he was pi­o­neer­ing were a force for good in the world. The term “sin­gu­lar­ity” now means the point at which ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence will meet and then sur­pass hu­man ca­pa­bil­ity. This has deeply con­cerned ge­nius level cur­rent thinkers in­clud­ing Stephen Hawk­ing who be­lieve it may be­come a real threat. Some think it will hap­pen by the end of the decade; oth­ers think at least by the mid-cen­tury.

Had Shan­non lived to see us this close to sin­gu­lar­ity loom­ing, what would he have thought? He would prob­a­bly have tried to in­vent gov­er­nors that would pre­vent AI from killing peo­ple. He was an op­ti­mist af­ter all; but how would he have viewed the prob­a­bil­ity of them de­mand­ing equal pay for equal work and vot­ing rights? Shan­non’s play­ful mind would have en­joyed the chal­lenge. Gary An­der­son is a re­tired Marine Corps Colonel who lec­tures at the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity’s El­liott School of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs.

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