Friday, June 26, 2015

Claude Shannon: Centennial and Machines

Claude Shannon and his electromechanical mouse Theseus. Retrieved from

Claude Elwood Shannon (April 30, 1916 – February 24, 2001) was a distinguished American electrical engineer and mathematician who founded the field of Information Theory when he published his landmark paper "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" in 1948. He worked on anti-aircraft and cryptography systems during World War II, and later on had a career at the AT&T Bell Labs and as a Professor at MIT. The MIT Technology Review Magazine ran an article on this Reluntant Father of the Digital Age shortly after his death.

In fact, while Shannon was still a student at MIT, he wrote what has been touted as the Most Important Master's Thesis of the Twentieth Century (putting forward the idea that Boolean algebra can be used for computing). Many technological fields that we know of now (such as the digital revolution, secrecy and cryptography, artificial intelligence, wearable computing) can all be traced back to Shannon's pioneering ideas and work.

Despite all these achievements, Shannon is surprisingly little known. Next year 2016 is Shannon's centenary. To get the public know more about Shannon, the Information Theory Society is on a drive to make a movie about this scientific genius of the twentieth century. Incidentally, Shannon did appear in a movie once - back in 1961 - in a MIT Centennial Film called The Thinking Machine. At 50:09 mins of the film, he shared his vision of a future machine capable of learning by experience. The Information Theory Society also aims to organize events worldwide to celebrate the Shannon's centenary. 

I wonder: What little bits of things can we do to celebrate Shannon's centenary?

Worth noting is Shannon's fun-loving and unconventional side: To amuse himself, Shannon created very clever mechanical and electrical toys -- a juggling robot, a flame-throwing trumpet, a maze-solving mouse, a chess-playing machine, a mind-reading machine, a manipulator to solve the Rubik's cube game etc. The Ultimate Machine is another such curiously uncanny toy -- we have one built from a small motor, off-the-shelf electronics and recyclable. See video below.

In a 1987 interview, the Omni Magazine asked Shannon: Do you find it depressing that chess computers are getting so strong? 

Shannon replied: I am not depressed by it. I am rooting for the machines! I have always been on the machines' side. Ha-ha! 

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