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What is Information Theory?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2016
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Information theory is a process that focuses on the task of quantifying information. The quantification of information is achieved by identifying viable methods of compressing and communicating data without causing and degradation in the integrity of the data. Information theory can be utilized in a number of different fields, including quantum computing, data analysis and cryptography.

The origin of modern informational theory is usually attributed to Claude E. Shannon. His work A Mathematical Theory of Communication, first published in 1948, lays the foundation for the quantification and compression of data into viable units that may be stored for easy retrieval later. His basic approach provided the tools necessary to enhance the efficiency of early mainframe computer systems, and translated easily into the advent of desktop computers during the decade of the 1970’s.

As a branch of both electrical engineering and applied mathematics, information theory seeks to uncover the most efficient methods of conveying data, within the limits inherent in the data proper. The idea is to ensure that the mass transit of data does not in any way decrease the quality, even if the data is compressed in some manner. Ideally, the data can be restored to its original form upon reaching its destination. In some cases, however, the goal is to allow data in one form to be converted for mass transmission, received at the point of termination, and easily converted into a format other than the original without losing any of the transmitted information.

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One of the applications of information theory that many people will be familiar with is the use of ZIP files to compress documents for transmission through email or as part of data storage procedures. The compression of the data makes it possible to complete the transmission in less time. At the receiving end, software is used to release or unzip the folder and restore the documents contained within the ZIP file to their original format.

Information theory also comes into use with other types of files as well. For example, the audio and video files that are played on an MP3 player are compressed for easy download and storage on the device. When accessed, the files expand and are immediately available for use.

Many other devices and modern technological advances that people use daily are made possible by the application of information theory. The access and function of the Internet would not be possible without information theory. In like manner, the storage capacity of a compact disk is directly linked to usage of this theory.

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