Movie Review

The Bit Player (2019)

The Bit Player (2019) is a documentary film by IEEE that was engaging to watch and shouldn’t be missed. It was a biography of Mr Claude Shannon, called as the father of information theory and credited with most of the fundamental mathematical and theoretical inventions powering the current digital era we are living in. The documentary by Mark Levinson is a collection of interviews with Mr Shannon, historic footages from Bell Labs, recreated enactments of his early years, descriptions of his works by renowned experts & scientists – this style makes the film enjoyable and not having a dull moment.

Mr Claude Shannon, called as the father of information theory
Mr Claude Shannon called as the father of information theory

Mr Shannon had worked at The Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, MIT, Bell Labs, and helped at American war efforts. Below are the highlights from the documentary that I managed to capture:

  • Mr Shannon in a recorded interview around the 1980s explains on how he connected Boolean Algebra to the state of switches (ON/OFF). A Truth Statement plus a Truth Statement makes a Truth Statement (1+1 = 1).
  • He recalls that in the 1940s when he was working on the “Information Theory” (it was not called so then): “No one was working on the theoretical questions of communication. Everyone was working on the code-breaking stuff, the sherlock holmes works. But I was thinking about how many messages you need to intercept before you can get a solution, can you create an unbreakable code?”
  • Shannon gave a radical new definition of information. He wanted to retrieve information like a physical thing, like energy, that you can measure. You have to look at it without regard to meaning. The content is irrelevant! Information is the resolution of uncertainty.
  • A Coin toss is the simplest form of information to communicate.
  • He says Gibberish contains more information than the great literature. Normal English language text is more than 50% redundant, that’s why the human brain is able to anticipate/understand the missing letters in communication.
Connecting Boolean Algebra to the state of switches (ON/OFF)
Connecting Boolean Algebra to the state of switches (ON/OFF)

He had given three main ideas to the field of Information Theory and they were:

  1. The idea to convert all information, whether it is audio, video, pictures, text to bits. All information can be treated the same way as bits.
  2. The second big idea was compression. Remove the redundant and send only the random parts. The minimum size needed to send a piece of information is based on the probability of the information, almost equal to fundamental quantity in physics called the Entropy. Entropy is the absolute minimum you can compress a message without any loss. He had wondered how to calculate the speed limit for the channel? And that led to the definition of “Shannon Limit”.
  3. The third big idea was to use Mathematics to limit the noise in a channel. The commentators wonder on how this can be used to communicate with our spouses – one of the difficult human forms of communication – we can repeat the message which will be received as nagging (or) we can speak louder which will display anger. Instead, Shannon’s works will show that we should pick our words and at the end add an error correction code, which in this case will be “but I love you!”.
Information Speed is Shannon's Limit
Information Speed is Shannon’s Limit

His monumental paper titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”, was published in 1949 in two parts in the July and October issues of the Bell System Technical Journal.

As the documentary nears the end Mr Shannon suggests that we can build reliable circuits from faulty components and connect it to how our human brain works, evolution has figured out that it is better to build redundancy than to have complex systems for reliability. Hearing these words in 2021 sounds remarkable, as this idea of building a reliable system from unreliable/ordinary computers was how Google was built in its early days and today’s cloud systems are all designed.

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