Information theory

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Information theory studies the quantification, storage, and communication of information. It was originally proposed by Claude Shannon in 1948 to find fundamental limits on signal processing and communication operations such as data compression, in a landmark paper titled "A Mathematical Theory of Communication". Its impact has been crucial to the success of the Voyager missions to deep space, the invention of the compact disc, 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 field is at the intersection of mathematics, statistics, computer science, physics, neurobiology, information engineering, and electrical engineering. The theory has also found applications in other areas, including statistical inference, natural language processing, cryptography, neurobiology,[1] human vision,[2] the evolution[3] and function[4] of molecular codes (bioinformatics), model selection in statistics,[5] thermal physics,[6] quantum computing, linguistics, plagiarism detection,[7] pattern recognition, and anomaly detection.[8] Important sub-fields of information theory include source coding, algorithmic complexity theory, algorithmic information theory, information-theoretic security, Grey system theory and measures of information.

Applications of fundamental topics of information theory include lossless data compression (e.g. ZIP files), lossy data compression (e.g. MP3s and JPEGs), and channel coding (e.g. for DSL). Information theory is used in information retrieval, intelligence gathering, gambling, and even in musical composition.

A key measure in information theory is entropy. Entropy quantifies the amount of uncertainty involved in the value of a random variable or the outcome of a random process. For example, identifying the outcome of a fair coin flip (with two equally likely outcomes) provides less information (lower entropy) than specifying the outcome from a roll of a die (with six equally likely outcomes). Some other important measures in information theory are mutual information, channel capacity, error exponents, and relative entropy.


Information theory studies the transmission, processing, extraction, and utilization of information. Abstractly, information can be thought of as the resolution of uncertainty. In the case of communication of information over a noisy channel, this abstract concept was made concrete in 1948 by Claude Shannon in his paper "A Mathematical Theory of Communication", in which "information" is thought of as a set of possible messages, where the goal is to send these messages over a noisy channel, and then to have the receiver reconstruct the message with low probability of error, in spite of the channel noise. Shannon's main result, the noisy-channel coding theorem showed that, in the limit of many channel uses, the rate of information that is asymptotically achievable is equal to the channel capacity, a quantity dependent merely on the statistics of the channel over which the messages are sent.[1]

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, for increasing the efficiency and reducing the error rate of data communication over noisy channels to near the channel capacity. 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 (unit) for a historical application.

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 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 W = K log m (recalling Boltzmann's constant), 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 one sequence of symbols from any other, thus quantifying information as H = log Sn = n log S, where S was the number of possible symbols, and n the number of symbols in a transmission. The unit of information was therefore the decimal digit, which has since sometimes been called the hartley in his honor 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 were 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

  • the information entropy and redundancy of a source, and its relevance through the source coding theorem;
  • the mutual information, and the channel capacity of a noisy channel, including the promise of perfect loss-free communication given by the noisy-channel coding theorem;
  • the practical result of the Shannon–Hartley law for the channel capacity of a Gaussian channel; as well as
  • the bit—a new way of seeing the most fundamental unit of information.

Quantities of information

Information theory is based on probability theory and statistics. Information theory often concerns itself with measures of information of the distributions associated with random variables. Important quantities of information are entropy, a measure of information in a single random variable, and mutual information, a measure of information in common between two random variables. The former quantity is a property of the probability distribution of a random variable and gives a limit on the rate at which data generated by independent samples with the given distribution can be reliably compressed. The latter is a property of the joint distribution of two random variables, and is the maximum rate of reliable communication across a noisy channel in the limit of long block lengths, when the channel statistics are determined by the joint distribution.

The choice of logarithmic base in the following formulae determines the unit of information entropy that is used. A common unit of information is the bit, based on the binary logarithm. Other units include the nat, which is based on the natural logarithm, and the decimal digit, which is based on the common logarithm.

In what follows, an expression of the form p log p is considered by convention to be equal to zero whenever p = 0. This is justified because for any logarithmic base.

Entropy of an information source

Based on the probability mass function of each source symbol to be communicated, the Shannon entropy H, in units of bits (per symbol), is given by

where pi is the probability of occurrence of the i-th possible value of the source symbol. This equation gives the entropy in the units of "bits" (per symbol) because it uses a logarithm of base 2, and this base-2 measure of entropy has sometimes been called the shannon in his honor. Entropy is also commonly computed using the natural logarithm (base e, where e is Euler's number), which produces a measurement of entropy in nats per symbol and sometimes simplifies the analysis by avoiding the need to include extra constants in the formulas. Other bases are also possible, but less commonly used. For example, a logarithm of base 28 = 256 will produce a measurement in bytes per symbol, and a logarithm of base 10 will produce a measurement in decimal digits (or hartleys) per symbol.

Intuitively, the entropy HX of a discrete random variable X is a measure of the amount of uncertainty associated with the value of X when only its distribution is known.

The entropy of a source that emits a sequence of N symbols that are independent and identically distributed (iid) is NH bits (per message of N symbols). If the source data symbols are identically distributed but not independent, the entropy of a message of length N will be less than NH.

The entropy of a Bernoulli trial as a function of success probability, often called the binary entropy function, Hb(p). The entropy is maximized at 1 bit per trial when the two possible outcomes are equally probable, as in an unbiased coin toss.

If one transmits 1000 bits (0s and 1s), and the value of each of these bits is known to the receiver (has a specific value with certainty) ahead of transmission, it is clear that no information is transmitted. If, however, each bit is independently equally likely to be 0 or 1, 1000 shannons of information (more often called bits) have been transmitted. Between these two extremes, information can be quantified as follows. If

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