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Firm Touts 'Perfect Compression'

2:00 a.m. Jan. 16, 2002 PST 

WASHINGTON -- Physicists do not question the laws of thermodynamics. Chemistry researchers unwaveringly cite Boyle's Law to describe the relationship between gas pressure and temperature. 

Computer scientists also have their own fundamental laws, perhaps not as well known, but arguably even more solid. One of those laws says a perfect compression mechanism is impossible. 

A slightly expanded version of that law says it is mathematically impossible to write a computer program that can compress all files by at least one bit. Sure, it's possible to write a program to compress typical data by far more than one bit -- that assignment is commonly handed to computer science sophomores, and the technique is used in .jpg and .zip files.

But those general techniques, while useful, don't work on all files; otherwise, you could repeatedly compress a .zip, .gzip or .sit file to nothingness. Put another way, compression techniques can't work with random data that follow no known patterns. 

So when a little-known company named ZeoSync announced last week it had achieved perfect compression -- a breakthrough that would be a bombshell roughly as big as e=mc2 -- it was greeted with derision. Their press release was roundly mocked for having more trademarks than a Walt Disney store, not to mention the more serious sin of being devoid of any technical content or evidence of peer review. 

A Reuters article was far more credulous, saying in the lead paragraph that "a Florida research startup working with a team of renowned mathematicians said on Monday it had achieved a breakthrough that overcomes the previously known limits of compression used to store and transmit data." 

For compression buffs, responding to such assertions ranks somewhere between a teeth-gnashing migraine and a full-contact sport. 

The comp.compression FAQ has an entire section devoted to debunking: "From time to time some people claim to have invented a new algorithm for (perfect compression). Such algorithms are claimed to compress random data and to be applicable recursively; that is, applying the compressor to the compressed output of the previous run, possibly multiple times." 

Several comp.compression fans have even offered rewards up to $5,000 for independently verifiable proof of perfect compression. They've never been claimed. 

Perfect compression, or even compression of a few hundred times -- what ZeoSync claims -- would revolutionize the storage, broadband and digital entertainment industry. It would mean that modems would be as fast as DSL, and DSL speeds would be blinding. A 40-GB hard drive would hold a terabyte, and so on. 

That is, if it works. 

During a telephone interview this week, ZeoSync chairman and CEO Peter St. George refused to answer any specific questions about his company's product. He could not point to one independent researcher who had reviewed his product but promised an announcement as early as Wednesday. 

Wired News: When did you start working on this technology? 

Peter St. George: I started developing the technology about a dozen years ago. I worked on this one problem for 12 years consecutively. This is a project that I dedicated my life to a dozen years ago. 

WN: What respected independent reviewer can verify your claim? 

PSG: We're going to be announcing later this year that we're going to be setting up a global test bed for scientists around the world to participate in. 

WN: Let's go into the details. Tell me how it works. It can compress random data? 

PSG: If you say absolutely random, it's going to be very hard to agree what absolutely random is. We can compress sequences that Stanford University professor Don Knuth described as uncompressible (in his Art of Computer Programming). 

WN: Are you saying you can compress random data by 100 times? 

PSG: What happens if you take the existing compression technologies of the world, they all have the principal method of mapping and then secondly encoding. Once the technology is operating to its maximum efficiency, you cannot send it through for a second or third pass. Because we have the ability to handle these random sequences, we can encode it once and then go around for a second pass. We have the ability to perform operations that aren't available with traditional compression technology. That allows us a magnitude of performance that's unachievable with traditional techniques.

WN: You have this working right now? 

PSG: It's only operating on a limited bitstream of a few hundred bits. It needs a lot of work to make it a commercial technology. 

WN: How do you get around the conventional wisdom that says simple mathematics says it's impossible? 

PSG: That's what's being proposed as the reason that our technology won't work. We plan to attack that issue head on. What hasn't been previously proven, we're proving. We can compress every single permutation of an N-member set. These are going to be the details that we're going to be announcing in a few days. 

If you have a propeller-driven airplane, nobody will deny that that engine will lift you up into the air. Now you have a turbine-driven jet engine. They operate by completely different methodologies. With our technology, you have to have a minimum set of base two binary carriers to create a multidimensional construct. Once that construct has been created, we can create a random sequence, a pattern sequence. It doesn't matter. 

WN: You say base two binary carriers -- don't you just mean a bit? 

PSG: Yes, base two is synonymous with binary. You need at least 100 bits, let's say, to create a multidimensional construct. Everything in an N-member set can be expressed in an N-1 set. You can reconstruct the H set without losing a bit in the process. 

WN: How? 

PSG: That's what we're going to be asking the world to wait and see. 

WN: Why didn't you submit this to be peer-reviewed and published in a conference proceeding? 

PSG: You can't have a scientific test without us describing how it all works. In a peer-review process, you have to describe the technology. 

The thing about it is we've invested a lot of time and energy (and don't want to) describe the actual fundamentals of the technology yet. We won't be bringing it to the scientific community for some time yet. We'll have an announcement on Wednesday or Thursday. 

WN: What will you say? 

PSG: I'm not going to describe this today because it's so substantial. I'm going to let the scientists themselves describe it. You've got my official statements for now. 

WN: You're saying that you can compress an arbitrary amount of data, say one terabyte, down to a few hundred bits? 

PSG: You're asking questions that I can't answer. I will answer these as we go. It's like asking someone who flew the airplane for the first time how many passengers will fit. I've got a group of people who have financed this research for the last 10 years or so. We have proprietary patents pending (with 50 to be filed this year). We're addressing these questions through the best way we know how. 

WN: In your demo, will someone upload a file and get a compressed version back? Will they install the application themselves? 

PSG: You get compressed stuff on your machine. It will satisfy everyone, I'm sure. It will be very robust. 

I have one quote I'd like to share with you: "The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it." We will make the demonstration of the technology available as quickly as we can get there.


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