With more than 9 billion gigabytes of information traveling the internet every day, researchers are constantly looking for new ways to compress data into smaller packages. Cutting-edge techniques focus on lossy approaches, which achieve compression by intentionally “losing” information from a transmission. Google, for instance, recently unveiled a lossy strategy where the sending computer drops details from an image and the receiving computer uses artificial intelligence to guess the missing parts. Even Netflix uses a lossy approach, downgrading video quality whenever the company detects that a user is watching on a low-resolution device.

Very little research, by contrast, is currently being pursued on lossless strategies, where transmissions are made smaller, but no substance is sacrificed. The reason? Lossless approaches are already remarkably efficient. They power everything from the PNG image standard to the ubiquitous software utility PKZip. And it’s all because of a graduate student who was simply looking for a way out of a tough final exam.

Seventy years ago, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor named Robert Fano offered the students in his information theory class a choice: Take a traditional final exam, or improve a leading algorithm for data compression. Fano may or may not have informed his students that he was an author of that existing algorithm, or that he’d been hunting for an improvement for years. What we do know is that Fano offered his students the following challenge.

Consider a message made up of letters, numbers and punctuation. A straightforward way to encode such a message would be to assign each character a unique binary number. For instance, a computer might represent the letter A as 01000001 and an exclamation point as 00100001. This results in codes that are easy to parse — every eight digits, or bits, correspond to one unique character — but horribly inefficient, because the same number of binary digits is used for both common and uncommon entries. A better approach would be something like Morse code, where the frequent letter E is represented by just a single dot, whereas the less common Q requires the longer and more laborious dash-dash-dot-dash.

Yet Morse code is inefficient, too. Sure, some codes are short and others are long. But because code lengths vary, messages in Morse code cannot be understood unless they include brief periods of silence between each character transmission. Indeed, without those costly pauses, recipients would have no way to distinguish the Morse message dash dot-dash-dot dot-dot dash dot (“trite”) from dash dot-dash-dot dot-dot-dash dot (“true”).

Fano had solved this part of the problem. He realized that he could use codes of varying lengths without needing costly spaces, as long as he never used the same pattern of digits as both a complete code and the start of another code. For instance, if the letter S was so common in a particular message that Fano assigned it the extremely short code 01, then no other letter in that message would be encoded with anything that started 01; codes like 010, 011 or 0101 would all be forbidden. As a result, the coded message could be read left to right, without any ambiguity. For example, with the letter S assigned 01, the letter A assigned 000, the letter M assigned 001, and the letter L assigned 1, suddenly the message 0100100011 can be immediately translated into the word “small” even though L is represented by one digit, S by two digits, and the other letters by three each.

To actually determine the codes, Fano built binary trees, placing each necessary letter at the end of a visual branch. Each letter’s code was then defined by the path from top to bottom. If the path branched to the left, Fano added a 0; right branches got a 1. The tree structure made it easy for Fano to avoid those undesirable overlaps: Once Fano placed a letter in the tree, that branch would end, meaning no future code could begin the same way.

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