The language behind the message

Text: Trio MedienService Bonn

Gerhard Kramer is a world leader in information theory and com-munications engineering, which play a central role in nearly all areas of modern communications. His goal at TU München is to network the chair for communications engineering internationally and to use his sophisticated communication theories to help solve problems in other f elds, like biology.

Gerhard Kramer creates languages that are not composed of words, but of bits and bytes. They form the basis for all forms of data exchange – whether by telephone, surfing the internet, football transmissions, traffic management systems or surgical operations using monitors. The crucial point is that these complex messages should reach the recipient quickly and reliably.

When being sent, the information is initially translated into a universal, electronic bit language. “This is like a text from which the vowels have been removed, but it is still comprehensible ,” says Kramer. “However, we communications engineers go further than this and take consonants away, too, until the meaning is not immediately clear.” And the advantage is: less data, faster transmission.

So how can the recipient now manage to understand this barebone message properly? “What we do is to add bits again, i.e. information, when the data arrives, until the meaning becomes clear again,” Kramer explains. This is particularly important when failure to understand a message correctly could prove dangerous. Take rail transport: Here it is essential that a message like “train on the same rails at a distance of one kilometre” is transmitted intelligibly and reliably. The trick is to get the information to the recipient as quickly and completely as possible. And this depends on the technology of the equipment involved, because a mobile phone needs a different ‘language’ from a computer.

Sometimes misunderstandings can occur at the receiving end, for example, in mobile communications. Mobile phone reception may be disturbed if signals from two base stations interfere with one another. “It’s like holding a conversation with one person when other people are talking just as loudly right next to you,” the communications engineer explains. Kramer’s solution to these problems are mini relay stations, little boxes mounted on houses to amplify the signals from the base station. “This means that I hear the message from my base station louder than the one coming from another station.” The scientist intends to cooperate with a mobile communications firm in Munich to expedite the technical application – a project with a future, especially as, according to Kramer, “interference is a big problem in the mobile communications business”.

A data network with a backbone

The Humboldt Professor is also working on increasing the efficiency of optical fibre cables which are located off coastlines and between continents. This is one of the major issues determining the future of the global network. “Smartphones can transmit a much larger volume of information than other mobile phones, so the network will soon reach its limits,” the researcher comments. In order to deal with the constantly growing amount of information, optical fibre cables are equipped with a number of optical waveguides. “We are developing a kind of language filter so that the various channels don’t disturb each other.”

The Humboldt Professor himself prefers to do without electronic equipment and simply jot his ideas and theories down on paper. “This means I can work in the tram on the way home, too.” Then he thinks up things like secret languages to optimise online banking. They have to work perfectly and, above all, securely. Consequently, Kramer has studied data encryption and developed secure encryption methods. “The fascinating thing about communications engineering is that it can translate extremely complicated processes into simple formulae.”

Gerhard Kramer does a great deal to promote junior researchers. “In America I organised a School of Information Theory, and I’d like to do something similar in Munich.” The idea is to run a knowledge sharing event lasting several days to bring together doctoral students of electrical engineering and other disciplines as well as inviting eminent researchers. “We need committed, gifted people who can make science come alive.”

He also knows exactly what he wants to do to network his chair. “Cooperating with Bell Labs Stuttgart is an ideal solution because they have a research section for wireless communication where we test the use of the little relay stations.” And when it comes to an interdisciplinary approach Kramer has unconventional plans, too: “There are issues in biology that we might be able to solve with communications engineering methods.” How does a cell manage, unfailingly, to reproduce itself exactly when it divides? Is there a mechanism that corrects genetic errors? “In communications engineering we have methods that could help to explain these things,” says Kramer. And in Munich he wants to drive them forward.