By Eric Auchard
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Florida research start-up 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.
If proven and successfully commercialized, the discovery asserted by ZeoSync Corp of West Palm Beach, Florida could overturn half a century of thinking in the field of lossless data compression and undermine business assumptions on which the telecommunications and other digital industries are based.
Lossless compression is the process by which computer data can be compacted, stored and then restored with complete fidelity, or zero loss of data. Existing compression techniques typically shed redundant data in order to conserve space.
ZeoSync said its scientific team had succeeded on a small scale in compressing random information sequences in such a way as to allow the same data to be compressed more than 100 times over -- with no data loss. That would be at least an order of magnitude beyond current known algorithms for compacting data.
The company's claims, which are yet to be demonstrated in any public forum, could vastly boost the ability of computer disks to store, text, music and video -- if ZeoSync's formulae succeed in scaling up to handle massive amounts of data.
The same compression technique might one day make make high-speed Internet access cheaper and widely available across the globe, posing a threat to huge investments in telecommunications network capacity, an industry analyst said.
"Either this research is the next 'Cold Fusion' scam that dies away or it's the foundation for a Nobel Prize. I don't have an answer to which one it is yet," said David Hill, a data storage analyst with Boston-based Aberdeen Group.
In 1990, a group of Utah researchers scandalized the scientific world with claims -- quickly found to be unsupported -- that the long-sought answer to the problem of Cold Fusion had been discovered.
Hill, the only independent analyst briefed ahead of the announcement, said ZeoSync's claims were theoretically feasible, but years away from definitive proof. He will require more information before evaluating ZeoSync's claims, he said.
ZeoSync, whose Web site can be located at /web/20020112225725/http://www.zeosync.com/, was founded by Peter St. George, an Internet and financial services entrepreneur, who has a background in telecommunications research.
ZeoSync, with 30 full-time employees, said it had collaborated with experts from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and researchers in Warsaw, Moscow, and Beijing.
BREAK WITH CURRENT TECHNOLOGIES
Among the scientific team working with ZeoSync is Steve Smale, one of America's most renowned mathematicians. Smale is an emeritus professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the 1966 winner of the Fields Prize, the Nobel Prize for researchers in this field. He could not be reached for comment on his role in the project.
Peter St. George, ZeoSync founder and chief executive, said his company's technique challenged the foundations of digital communications theory spelled out by AT&T's Dr. Claude Shannon in his classic 1948 treatise on Information Theory.
Shannon, who died in 1991, had proposed that any type of information, from human speech to computer keyboards to storage disks is limited by the capacity of the data channel over which it flows. This is the basis of digital communications theory.
"What we've developed is a new plateau in communications theory," St. George said. "We are expecting to produce the enormous capacity of analog signaling, with the benefit of the noise-free integrity of digital communications."
The techniques described by ZeoSync would mark a break with the dozens of existing compression technologies, including MPEG for video and music and JPEG for pictures and graphics are able to compact data at compression rates up to 10 times the original. These algorithms typically work by eliminating long strings of identifiable bits of data such as blue sky, green grass or the white background of a snow-covered landscape.
In a statement, ZeoSync said its techniques, "once fully developed, will offer compression ratios that are anticipated to approach the hundreds-to-one range."
Using mathematical terminology, the company said its technique "intentionally randomizes naturally occurring patterns to form entropy-like random sequences."
ZeoSync said it had applied for patent protection for a technology it calls Zero Space Tuner, and a related technique it calls BinaryAccelerator, which encodes data into perfectly reproducible compressed formats.
The company expects the technology to be in commercial use during 2003, it said.
St. George told Reuters the company was in talks with unnamed potential strategic partners, including a major supplier of computer chips used in multimedia compression and also a leading Hollywood music studio, among others.
Partnerships deals will be announced over the next several months, he said, although no deals had yet been reached. The company said its technology could be used to enhance existing compression techniques such as fractals, a school of geometry that seeks to find order in the chaos of the natural world.
"We would like to invite additional members of the scientific community to join us in our efforts to revolutionize digital technology," St. George said of the formerly secretive project.
"There is a lot of exciting work to be done."