Information Theory

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Information theory is a discipline in applied mathematics involving the quantification of data with the goal of enabling as much data as possible to be reliably stored on a medium or communicated over a channel. The measure of information, known as information entropy, is usually expressed by the average number of bits needed for storage or communication. For example, if a daily weather description has an entropy of 3 bits, then, over enough days, we can describe daily weather with an average of approximately 3 bits per day.

Applications of fundamental topics of information theory include lossless data compression (e.g. ZIP files), lossy data compression (e.g. MP3s), and channel coding (e.g. for DSL lines). The field is at the crossroads of mathematics, statistics, computer science, physics, neurobiology, and electrical engineering. Its impact has been crucial to success of the Voyager missions to deep space, the invention of the CD, the feasibility of mobile phones, the development of the Internet, the study of linguistics and of human perception, the understanding of black holes, and numerous other fields.


The main concepts of information theory can be grasped by considering the most widespread means of human communication: language. Two important aspects of a good language are as follows: First, the most common words (e.g., "a," "the," "I") should be shorter than less common words (e.g., "benefit," "generation," "mediocre"), so that sentences will not be too long. Such a tradeoff in word length is analogous to data compression and is the essential aspect of source coding. Second, if part of a sentence is unheard or misheard due to noise—e.g., a passing car—the listener should still be able to glean the meaning of the underlying message. Such robustness is as essential for an electronic communication system as it is for a language; properly building such robustness into communications is done by channel coding. Source coding and channel coding are the fundamental concerns of information theory.

Note that these concerns have nothing to do with the importance of messages. For example, a platitude such as "Thank you; come again" takes about as long to say or write as the urgent plea, "Call an ambulance!" while clearly the latter is more important and more meaningful. Information theory, however, does not involve message importance or meaning, as these are matters of the quality of data rather than the quantity of data, the latter of which is determined solely by probabilities.

Information theory is generally considered to have been founded in 1948 by Claude Shannon in his seminal work, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication." The central paradigm of classical information theory is the engineering problem of the transmission of information over a noisy channel. The most fundamental results of this theory are Shannon's source coding theorem, which establishes that, on average, the number of bits needed to represent the result of an uncertain event is given by its entropy; and Shannon's noisy-channel coding theorem, which states that reliable communication is possible over noisy channels provided that the rate of communication is below a certain threshold called the channel capacity. The channel capacity can be approached by using appropriate encoding and decoding systems.

Information theory is closely associated with a collection of pure and applied disciplines that have been investigated and reduced to engineering practice under a variety of rubrics throughout the world over the past half century or more: adaptive systems, anticipatory systems, artificial intelligence, complex systems, complexity science, cybernetics, informatics, machine learning, along with systems sciences of many descriptions. Information theory is a broad and deep mathematical theory, with equally broad and deep applications, amongst which is the vital field of coding theory.

Coding theory is concerned with finding explicit methods, called codes, of increasing the efficiency and reducing the net error rate of data communication over a noisy channel to near the limit that Shannon proved is the maximum possible for that channel. These codes can be roughly subdivided into data compression (source coding) and error-correction (channel coding) techniques. In the latter case, it took many years to find the methods Shannon's work proved were possible. A third class of information theory codes are cryptographic algorithms (both codes and ciphers). Concepts, methods and results from coding theory and information theory are widely used in cryptography and cryptanalysis. See the article ban (information) for a historical application.

Information theory is also used in information retrieval, intelligence gathering, gambling, statistics, and even in musical composition.

Historical background

The landmark event that established the discipline of information theory, and brought it to immediate worldwide attention, was the publication of Claude E. Shannon's classic paper "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" in the Bell System Technical Journal in July and October of 1948.

Prior to this paper, limited information theoretic ideas had been developed at Bell Labs, all implicitly assuming events of equal probability. Harry Nyquist's 1924 paper, Certain Factors Affecting Telegraph Speed, contains a theoretical section quantifying "intelligence" and the "line speed" at which it can be transmitted by a communication system, giving the relation <math>W = K \log m</math>, where W is the speed of transmission of intelligence, m is the number of different voltage levels to choose from at each time step, and K is a constant. Ralph Hartley's 1928 paper, Transmission of Information, uses the word information as a measurable quantity, reflecting the receiver's ability to distinguish that one sequence of symbols from any other, thus quantifying information as <math>H = \log S^n = n \log S</math>, where S was the number of possible symbols, and n the number of symbols in a transmission. The natural unit of information was therefore the decimal digit, much later renamed the hartley in his honour as a unit or scale or measure of information. Alan Turing in 1940 used similar ideas as part of the statistical analysis of the breaking of the German second world war Enigma ciphers.

Much of the mathematics behind information theory with events of different probabilities was developed for the field of thermodynamics by Ludwig Boltzmann and J. Willard Gibbs. Connections between information-theoretic entropy and thermodynamic entropy, including the important contributions by Rolf Landauer in the 1960s, are explored in Entropy in thermodynamics and information theory.

In Shannon's revolutionary and groundbreaking paper, the work for which had been substantially completed at Bell Labs by the end of 1944, Shannon for the first time introduced the qualitative and quantitative model of communication as a statistical process underlying information theory, opening with the assertion that

"The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point, either exactly or approximately, a message selected at another point."

With it came the ideas of

Quantities of information

Information theory is based on probability theory and statistics. The most important quantities of information are entropy, the information in a random variable, and mutual information, the amount of information in common between two random variables. The former quantity indicates how easily message data can be compressed while the latter can be used to find the communication rate across a channel.