How Claude Shannon Invented the Future

More than 70 years ago, in a single groundbreaking paper, Claude Shannon laid the foundation for the entire communication infrastructure underlying the modern information age.

Communication is one of the most basic human needs. From smoke signals to carrier pigeons to the telephone to television, humans have always sought methods that would allow them to communicate farther, faster and more reliably. But the engineering of communication systems was always tied to the specific source and physical medium. Shannon instead asked, “Is there a grand unified theory for communication?” In a 1939 letter to his mentor, Vannevar Bush, Shannon outlined some of his initial ideas on “fundamental properties of general systems for the transmission of intelligence.” After working on the problem for a decade, Shannon finally published his masterpiece in 1948: “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.”

Before Shannon, the problem of communication was primarily viewed as a deterministic signal-reconstruction problem: how to transform a received signal, distorted by the physical medium, to reconstruct the original as accurately as possible. Shannon’s genius lay in his observation that the key to communication is uncertainty. After all, if you knew ahead of time what I would say to you in this column, what would be the point of writing it?

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