President's Message

Sergio Verdú

It is true that "Information" and "Theory" are not equally in vogue these days. But the relevance of our field to the "practical world" has been questioned since its inception. And in this regard, shortsightedness has not been monopolized by skeptical practitioners. Consider the example of the famous American mathematician, J. L. Doob, who in a 1959 editorial in the Information Theory Transactions expresses the view that "in spite of all the suggestive work by Wiener, Shannon, and their successors, the main thing that strikes an outsider is that there are so few theoretical results... Even more extraordinary is the fact that this process of organizing what seems to be the very basis of the subject seems to have no effect whatsoever on applications! Can it be that the existence of a mathematical basis is irrelevant, and that the basic principle is the very idea that there is a context in which the word "information" is accepted by general agreement and used in an intuitive way, and that no more is needed?" Well, it was not the first time that Doob would prove to be somewhat less of a visionary in information theory matters; ten years earlier he had written a notoriously caustic review of "A Mathematical Theory of Communication."

Before the computer age, the theory on the fundamental limits of data compression and transmission was, in the eyes of many, as irrelevant as relativity theory was thought to be at the beginning of the century. But as you read these lines, you are unlikely to be more than a few meters away from a machine whose software incorporates the Lempel-Ziv algorithm; you own several Reed-Solomon decoders; Huffman codes speed the transmission of your faxes; you browse the Web courtesy of trellis-coded-modulation; you carry a Viterbi decoder in your pocket (inside your digital cellular phone), and so on and so forth. The "information highway" would be no more than a narrow footpath without fifty years of information theory!

And fin-de-siecle information theory keeps on taking advantage of the proverbial advances in hardware speed and integration. The turbo-revolution in coding theory, new methods for coding of speech and images, and the efficient use of the limited bandwidth and power of multiuser wireless channels, are examples of "hot" technologies likely to bear practical fruit in the not-too-distant future.

The irresistible intellectual attraction of the advances spawned by information theory resides, I think, in the close intertwining of mathematics and algorithms. Ubiquitous algorithms that lend themselves to beautiful analyses, fundamental limits with which to assess practical solutions, simple and insightful models of the physical world continue to be as exhilarating a mix as in 1948.

The strength and appeal of the Information Theory Society comes not just from the interplay of theory and practice, or from the depth of its major contributors, but from the breadth and diversity of its members. Indeed, in order to make your intellectual home in the Information Theory Society you do not need to know much about codes, use logarithms in your papers, or even believe that bandwidth is a terrible thing to waste.

A brief personal closing note. It has been a privilege to serve as President of the Information Theory Society in 1997. I salute all those friends and colleagues who have lent their energy and enthusiasm to the affairs of the Society, and who have proudly contributed to prepare for the celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Information Theory.