Thursday, May 5, 2016

Paradigms: Shannon and Wiener

The IEEE is honoring the 100th anniversary of the birth of Claude Shannon. In contrast Norbert Wiener seems to slowly go into the history books and not as well praised as Shannon. I had the opportunity to see both at a distance and to have studied under their students. Each introduced a new paradigm, a simple example as how to see things.

For Shannon it was the binary symmetric channel, BSC as shown above. Bits, probabilities, information, coding. For Wiener it was the feedback loop, cybernetics, least square estimation, and the Wiener process. Both are paradigms of uncertainty. For Shannon it was p as the probability of sending a bit correctly and q for not. For Wiener it was noise introduced into the system at various points.

As they IEEE article states:

Bell Labs, now part of Nokia, organized the Claude Shannon Centennial Conference to reflect on the immense legacy of one of its most legendary alumni and look at the future of the information age he helped launch. Invited speakers discussed how Shannon’s work transformed their research fields and their own careers, and what lessons his life offers to today’s innovators.

 Now Murray Hill is a long stones thrown from my computer. It is now owned by Nokia, formerly Alcatel, formerly Lucent, formerly AT&T. The parking lot is now filled with solar arrays, that seems to be it most profitable output. Thus one wonders why the fuss?

Was Shannon as important as Wiener or the reverse. Wiener thought in the large. He saw the world as massive feedback loops driven by uncertainty. Shannon saw BSCs and codes. Wiener worried about the automation of manufacturing and the impact on workers, kind of like the current political campaign. Shannon did games.

Yet this was a gathering to honor Shannon. His impact was that his writing was simple, clear, and spawned careers that were in turn Shannonesque. Wiener wrote and thought, yet he like Shannon was a bit of a loner, yet Cybernetics took hold in Russia and not the US, yet Black-Scholes the option trading formula is merely an artifact of Wiener and his theory. One changed communications the other finance. One played games the other worried about the world. You choose.

Paradigm changes are critical. Yet what one does with them is also important.