December 7, 2020 |
Born in Israel in 1975, Malicious Life Podcast host Ran studied Electrical Engineering at the Technion Institute of Technology, and worked as an electronics engineer and programmer for several High Tech companies in Israel.
In 2007, created the popular Israeli podcast Making History. He is author of three books (all in Hebrew): Perpetuum Mobile: About the history of Perpetual Motion Machines; The Little University of Science: A book about all of Science (well, the important bits, anyway) in bite-sized chunks; Battle of Minds: About the history of computer malware.
Malicious Life by Cybereason exposes the human and financial powers operating under the surface that make cybercrime what it is today. Malicious Life explores the people and the stories behind the cybersecurity industry and its evolution. Host Ran Levi interviews hackers and industry experts, discussing the hacking culture of the 1970s and 80s, the subsequent rise of viruses in the 1990s and today’s advanced cyber threats.
Malicious Life theme music: ‘Circuits’ by TKMusic, licensed under Creative Commons License. Malicious Life podcast is sponsored and produced by Cybereason. Subscribe and listen on your favorite platform:
Is it possible to compress an entire movie into 8 KB?
The first book that I wrote some 15 years ago, dealt with a special class of machines: ‘perpetual motion machines’, which do not require energy to work. Obviously, these contraptions are impossible: the laws of physics state that every machine needs a source of energy to run. But this fact has not prevented thousands of inventors from trying to invent such machines throughout the last two thousand years.
While researching that book, I stumbled upon an interesting fact: for every generation, or for every historical period – there were perpetual motion machines typical of that period. For example, inventors that lived in the Middle Ages tried to invent water pumps that do not need a bull to spin them, because pumping water from the well was an important and basic need in those days. Modern inventors tried to make cars that do not require fuel to drive, or electricity generators that work without coal or gas.
When I did the research for this chapter, I was reminded of this interesting feature of perpetual motion machines. Why? Because the invention that will be at the center of our story today symbolizes one of the most important needs of our time. Data compression.
Data Compression’s Place in Modern Tech
But since when is compressing raw video files into mp4s or WAV files into mp3, an essential need like petrol for cars, or gas for electricity generation? Well, go to your living room and turn on Netflix. Or open your phone and go to YouTube, or Spotify or Apple Music. The TV series you binged on this weekend? That movie you saw yesterday? The new album you heard? All of these would have been impossible without information compression technologies. One second of HD quality video, if delivered as is – without any compression of the raw information – takes about 1.5 GB. One second! The only reason we can watch all those movies in HD and listen to all those songs is because engineers at Google, Netflix and all other technology companies have been able to compress these vast amounts of information, so they can be transmitted over the relatively narrow bandwidths of our existing communication channels.
And it’s not just movies and songs. Compressing information is an integral part of every action we take on the web: every time we visit a website, every photo we send on WhatsApp, every post we upload to Facebook – all that information is compressed before it is sent to its destination. Without compression, our communications infrastructure would have no chance of dealing with the trillions of bits that pass through it at any given moment.
Now ask yourself: how much money will the leading technology companies be willing to pay for technology that can compress an entire movie – ninety minutes of excellent quality video – into…I don’t know…8 KB? 8 KB is about a hundredth of the size of a picture you take on your phone, maybe even less. And I’m not talking about eight kilobytes per second of video: I mean eight kilobytes for an entire movie!
This kind of compression would allow you to store more than ten million full-length movies, in a standard USB thumb drive. So, yeah: whatever the price, it’s worth it.
Just think of the opportunities. Take, for example, MP3. By compressing audio files to a tenth of their size, MP3 launched a dramatic revolution. Twenty years ago I had a huge collection of CDs which cost me a small fortune. Today, I’m paying 15 dollars a month, and me and my entire family can listen to just about every piece of music that was ever published. The entire music industry’s business model turned on its head. Think, then, of what we could do with a technology 100,000 times as powerful.
In this episode of ML we will tell the story of one such invention. It’s not your ‘classic’ hacking story – but I think you’ll find it interesting nonetheless.
Romke Jan Bernhard Sloot
Romke Jan Bernhard Sloot was born in 1945 in a small village called Nieuwegein in the Netherlands. Already at a young age Sloot demonstrated an impressive technical talent, and was deeply attracted to anything related to electronics. Although he did not graduate from high school, he was hired by Philips, the Dutch technology giant, thanks to his outstanding skill. After a year and a half, Sloot left Phillips. In 1978, he opened a small electronics store in Nieuwegein, and later worked as a TV repair technician.
Sloot was an excellent technician and gained a lot of knowledge about television technology. His dream was to share this knowledge with other technicians in the Netherlands. These were the early days of personal computers, and although the Internet was still a distant dream, Sloot realized that computers were the key to sharing such knowledge.
The problem was that the amount of information that could be stored on floppy disks – the prevalent storage devices of the day – was small. Sloot began looking for ways to store information more efficiently until, after a time, it became his life’s mission. He devoted almost twenty years to research and development, until in the mid-1990s he finally found what he was looking for: a new way to compress digital information.
Two local businessmen heard about the invention, and asked Sloot to demonstrate it for them. Sloot took a standard TV and plugged it into an electronics box the size of a thick book. Sloot then pulled a small memory card, the size of a credit card, out of his pocket. The memory card, he explained, could hold up to 64 KB of data, and the electronics box contained software that could decode its content. In that 64 KB memory card, claimed Sloot, there were no less than 16 full-length films. To give you a sense of how breathtaking this achievement is: A CD – the pinnacle of information storage technology in the 1990s – could store merely 72 minutes of video.
Sloot took the memory card and inserted it into a slot in the electronics box. The screen came to life, with 16 movies playing side by side, simultaneously! It was practically science fiction.
The businessmen stood aghast. It was clear to them that if what they were seeing was true and not some subtle deception, it was an invention that could change the world. But they were relatively clueless when it came to electronics and computers: one was a construction contractor, and the other owned a furniture store. Even if they believed Sloot, they didn’t have the resources nor the know-how to help him develop his invention into a commercial product.
Luckily for Sloot and his investors, the Netherlands is a relatively small country where everyone knows everyone. A friend of a friend connected them with the vice president of Philips – a man named Roel Pieper – who agreed to meet. The meeting was held on March 4, 1999, and was a great success. Sloot presented Piper with the same demo as before – 16 full length movies on a tiny memory card – and Pieper was very impressed. The meeting, which was allocated twenty minutes, lasted more than an hour. When it was over, Pieper said that he would consider the matter and be in touch in a few weeks. Instead, he called them the very same day, and offered another meeting.
Now is probably a good time to say a few words about Roel Pieper. Physically, Pieper – a former basketball player – is a very impressive man, tall and handsome. His resume is even more impressive. He has a Ph.D. in Computer Science, was a CTO and then CEO of two major technology companies. He sold one of them to Compaq, a technology giant, in a deal that made him one of the richest people in the Netherlands. A year before the meeting with Jan Sloot, Pieper returned from the United States to the Netherlands, and was immediately invited to join Phillips’ board of directors. Rumors in the company predicted that Pieper is destined to succeed the company’s current CEO. So the fact that a guy like that was so interested in the memory card invention was very promising.
A 2nd Demonstration
But Jan Sloot refused to go to Pieper’s office again. It makes no logical sense, but anyone who has met the inventor could tell you why: he’s a paranoid guy. Sloot feared that Phillips’ engineers would take advantage of his visit to steal the electronics box, analyze the decryption software, and copy his technology. He was so paranoid that he did not even tell his son, who accompanied him to most of these meetings, how exactly the invention worked. He feared his son would innocently blurt out revealing details.
Sloot did agree to a second meeting, but in a neutral location – a factory owned by one of his business partners. Pieper brought with him three engineers from Philips to examine the invention in depth. The three engineers watched the demonstration and questioned Sloot at length about the technical details of his inventi on. At the end of the demonstration, Pieper and his engineers left the factory.
We don’t know what exactly Sloot and the engineers talked about, but following this meeting, Phillips decided to reject Sloot and his invention. Maybe they suspected that he was a conman. It’s understandable. A lot of people would have felt this way, in that same position. Like, when a Dutch professor – a computer science expert who also worked for Philips – heard about Sloot’s invention, he remarked:
“We, the experts, are very happy if we can improve the compression of digital information by one percent. A twofold improvement in compression may be possible – but a million times compression is impossible.”
Sloot’s invention was not a million times better than the most advanced compression technologies of the time: it was a hundred million times better than them, if not more. Was it even possible to improve compression technology one hundred million times over – or for that matter, even a million times? Was the skepticism shown by Phillips’ engineers and the said professor justified?
To figure this out we’ll have to familiarize ourselves with the basic concepts behind data compression technology.
The roots of compression tech go back to the first half of the 19th century. The telegraph revolutionized long-distance communication, and the messages passing through the wires were encoded in Morse code: each character given a specific representation in dots and dashes. Now, there were loads of people who wanted to send messages, but only relatively few telegraph lines, so it was essential that each message was encoded by the shortest possible combination of dashes and dots. Morse’s solution to this challenge was to encode each character according to its frequency in the English language: The higher the frequency of a particular letter in a language, the shorter its representation in Morse code. For example, the letters E and T are the most common letters in the English alphabet, and therefore were assigned the shortest possible representations in Morse code: a dot and a dash, respectively. More rare letters, like Q for example, have been given longer representations: dash dash dot dash.
One hundred years later, a brilliant mathematician and electrical engineer named Claude Shannon took this idea of representing information according to its statistical frequency, and together with another researcher named Robert Fano developed it into a clever and groundbreaking information compression algorithm named the “Shannon-Fano coding.” This algorithm works by analyzing the information in a dataset to determine which characters or symbols are most common, and assigns each of them a binary representation of zeros and ones according to their frequency (‘coding’, in professional parlance). Like Morse code before it, the goal was that this binary representation would be leaner and more compact than the information’s original form. Unlike Morse code, the dots and dashes – in this case zeros and ones – change each time you apply the algorithm on a different dataset.
Say, for example, that a book has a million characters. If I wish to convert the book into a digital form, I’d probably use what’s known as Unicode encoding: an international communications standard which designates a specific string of 16 bits to each character. This means that the digital version of the book would take 16 million bits.
The Shannon-Fano algorithm, on the other hand, would tailor the encoding specifically according to the contents of my specific book. If the letter E is more frequent in my book than the letter Z, it might encode E using only 4 bits instead of 16. By the end of the process, the full book would probably take only 8 million bits instead of 16 million. In other words, I compressed the original book without losing any of its content.
There are an infinite number of other ways to represent the same information in binary form: Shannon and Fano’s method was successful, but far from perfect. A few years later another researcher, named David Huffman, was able to improve on Shannon and Fano. In subsequent years, other researchers managed to refine and improve compression in different ways.
These methods – Morse code, Shannon-Fano, and so on – fall under the category of ‘Lossless Compression’: that is, when we compress the file, the information itself is not lost and can be fully recovered when the file is decompressed. This feature is critical: no one would want to compress a Word file, for example, and find that upon decompression words and sentences disappeared from the original document.
Lossless Compression works well when the data you’re working with is repetitive – like texts, for example, where the same letters appear over and over again. In fact, with repetitive information and today’s algorithms, you can get fantastic compression rates. For example, if you google – and don’t, I warn you – but if you google – really, don’t – but if you DO google the term ‘zip 42’, you’ll probably find a innocent-looking file whose size is a mere 42 KB. This file is actually a ‘Zip Bomb’. If you download this compressed file to your computer and try to decompress it – it will swell to the size of 4.5 PT (petabytes) – which is roughly one hundred million episodes of Malicious Life. The average consumer PC doesn’t have that much memory – and so your computer will probably crash.
How can 4.5 Peta-Bytes be compressed into 42 KB? Easily, if the compressed information is just a very long line of zeros. Because of this repetitiveness, the compression algorithm can reduce its size dramatically. In fact, if you think about it, the phrase “4.5 PetaBytes of just zeros’ is itself a very compressed and compact representation of this same information.
But there are types of information for which there is very little repetitiveness – information such as images, audio and video. Here and there you can find an area in an image that contains only black pixels, for example, but in most cases, even among the dark pixels, there are some that are darker and others that are a little less dark. In such cases where there isn’t a lot of repetitiveness in the information, Lossless Compression can’t do a good job. If you try to take a typical audio or video file and compress it using Lossless Compression algorithms such as LZ77 and the like, you will get a compression ratio of, at best, only 40-50%. It sounds pretty good, but remember: just one second of HD quality video takes about 1.5 GigaBytes of data, and the typical bandwidth of consumer internet connections isn’t large enough to stream these media in real-time, if we were to use such compression.
The solution, in this case, is to use a different method of compression: Lossy Compression. In Lossy Compression the algorithm tries to locate within the information that is fed to it those pieces of information that for some reason are ‘unimportant’, and throws them out of the original file. MP3 is a classic example of Lossy Compression, but since our story mostly revolves around video, let’s concentrate on that.
A video consists of frames, which are images that alternate one after the other about thirty times every second. The first step in compression is to analyze each individual frame, and locate details that the human eye is unable to spot. If, for example, there are two adjacent pixels, one of which is black and the other is a very, very dark gray – the human eye can’t tell the difference, and so the algorithm will convert one of the pixels so as to make it identical to the other. Using tricks like these the algorithm renders the original information more repetitive, thus preparing it for the next step: the actual compression. With more repetition in the pixels, a frame that weighs a few megabytes can be compressed to tens or hundreds of kilobytes. The algorithm I’m describing has a name: JPEG. You may have heard of it. It’s the algorithm that is used for the still images we take on phones, for example.
The next step in the video compression is to identify the changes between subsequent frames. Every video has areas in the image that change relatively little over time. For example, suppose I take a video of my son playing in my backyard. He’s in the center of the picture and is constantly moving – because that’s what children do: they just can’t stand still for even a second. But while my son is in constant motion, the background of the video hardly changes: the sky and the ground, for example, remain almost unchanged between frames. If there is no change, an algorithm can group these pixels together. In addition to the unchanging areas, there will be areas in the video that move as a block. If, for example, I’m taking a video of a moving train, It’s likely that all the pixels depicting the train will move together, as one. In this case, the compression algorithm divides the pixels into blocks, moving these blocks as one between frames, instead of describing the displacement of each pixel individually. The resulting description, then, is much more compact.
Because we omit lots of information from the original file – replacing pixel values and ignoring areas that do not change in the video – Lossy Compression is much more efficient than Lossless Compression: it can compress files up to times their original size. But, of course, it comes at a price: the more information we omit from the original file, the worse the final product looks. After too much compression the background starts to get blurry, the colors become distorted, and so on.
Now we can appreciate why Philips’ engineers were so skeptical towards Jan Sloot. Their experience told them that in order to compress an entire video into eight kilobytes – a compression ratio of more than one in a hundred million – you would have to omit so much information from the original film that it becomes practically useless. Even a low quality GIF takes more than 8 kb of data. So, naturally, Jan Sloot had to be a crook.
Indeed, there have been such scams in the past. For example, WIC was a program which, instead of doing actual compression, hid the original file data elsewhere in the hard-drive of a user’s computer – and simply lied to them about what actually occurred. In at least one case, the crooks who developed WIC managed to wrestle millions of dollars from innocent investors.
Pieper Joins The 5th Force
But here comes a surprising plot twist in our story. A twist so weird and amazing that if I did not know for certain that it was true, I’m sure you would not believe me. Roel Pieper, Philips’ vice president, did not agree with the opinion of his engineers. In fact, he had such faith in Sloot’s invention and its potential that he decided to resign from Philips, and join Sloot’s investor group.
You’ve got to remember that Roel Pieper wasn’t a minor businessman – we are talking about one of the best-known technology gurus in the Netherlands. Some called him the ‘Dutch Bill Gates’. He was at the peak of his professional career and one of the richest people in the Netherlands.
At first glance, Pieper’s move seems utterly illogical: who would give up all that just to join up with a TV technician from a sleepy little town?
But Roel Pieper was far from stupid. His rich experience taught him that such a dramatic improvement in compression technology would bring about a technological revolution on a scale that is hard to even imagine. According to Pieper’s conservative estimate, Sloot’s invention’s initial value was worth at least twenty-four billion dollars, and this was indeed a very conservative estimate. Now it’s easier to understand why Pieper did what he did.
Pieper, Sloot and several other investors set up a company called the Fifth Force, with Pieper at the helm. He took advantage of his extensive connections in the tech world to open doors that the TV technician had no chance of opening on his own. They took off for the United States – Sloot’s first ever intercontinental flight – and met with several CEOs and senior partners of venture capital funds, who showed great interest in the invention.
The fundraising campaign was a huge success. Within a few weeks, Pieper announced to investors that ABN AMRO, the third largest bank in the Netherlands, was willing to invest about fifty million dollars in the new company for four percent of its shares. The final meeting with the Bank’s representatives, at which the final decision regarding the investment would be made, was scheduled for Friday, July 9th, 1999.
Pieper decided to invite an old acquaintance: an American businessman named Thomas Perkins. Perkins was one of the biggest high-tech investors in Silicon Valley: his fund, Kleiner Perkins, was one of the first investors in Amazon, Google, Twitter and many other successful companies, and he was personally worth several billion dollars.
When Pieper told Perkins about Sloot’s invention, Perkins was convinced it was a scam. This is how Perkins wrote about his conversation with Pieper in his autobiography several years later:
“’ [I told him] that defies Shannon’s theorem and I think maybe Forurier’s and Green’s too. It’s impossible.’ If I could have thought of any other theories to throw in, I would have done so. It seemed to be a loony idea. […] It sounds like black magic to me, Roel.”
But Pieper insisted.
“Tom, it’s better than black magic. It’s truly revolutionary! Because the data rate is so low with this technology, television can go over normal wires. The picture telephone is a trivial first application. No more cable, no more fiber optics are needed! Whole libraries of video can be put in the consumer’s pocket.”
Perkins remained skeptical, but Pieper was not just anyone: not only was he a serious and respectable businessman, he also had a Ph.d in computer science. And so, despite the skepticism, Thomas Perkins agreed to attend the July 9th meeting.
Perkins was in England at the time. He and Pieper got into Perkins’ car and drove together to Pieper’s estate on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Along the way, Pieper explained exactly how Sloot’s invention worked. The engineers who examined it, Pieper said, did not understand it properly. This was not information compression at all, he said – but something else entirely.
How The System Really Worked
Let’s say I want to show you the Mona Lisa, the famous painting. I could take a picture of the painting, compress it, and send it to you by email or WhatsApp. But I can also do something else: I can send you a link to the Mona Lisa entry on Wikipedia. When you click on the link you’ll be able see the painting, even though I did not send you even one pixel of the original image. The link I sent you is simply a pointer to an existing piece of information that you already have access to. The hyperlink contains much less information than the image itself, so sending it is much faster and more efficient than sending all those millions of pixels that make up the Mona Lisa. All this is based on the assumption, of course, that the recipient already has this information available to them and all they need is a pointer that will direct them to its exact location.
The same principle underlies Sloot’s invention. Here’s how Pieper explained it to Perkins:
“On the transmitting end you have software that receives an image in real time and converts that image into a very limited string of bits for light and sound based upon instructions in a look-up table. The transmitting box sends those bits to the receiving end where those same bits are used to look up in the same table the light and sound needed to regenerate the original image.”
According to this explanation, Sloot’s electronics box which he used in his demonstrations, holds some sort of a table that can be used for converting a relatively short string of bits into a full blown video frame. We use the string of bits as an index. If, for example, the bit string is 000 – this means we selected row number 0, which holds all the information needed to create a specific frame. If it’s 001 – we select row number 1, which holds a different frame. The memory card holds a list of all the bit strings that represent all the frames in a movie.
I can’t deny that there’s something elegant and charming about the simplicity of this idea. After all, every frame of every movie that has ever been made or will be made in the future is just a combination of pixels within a predefined square. It doesn’t matter if it is a Spielberg film or a Minecraft video shot by my son – both must, in the end, have to choose their frames from a finite pool of all the frames that can, in principle, be projected on a screen. So if all the frames that can be shot are already on the viewer’s TV in advance in the form of a ‘look-up’ table that decodes a string of bits – this means that there’s actually no ‘compression’ going on all.
Sloot is not the only one who thought of this idea. Google, for example, proposed in 2008 a new communications standard called SDCH, which is based on the same concept. Whenever we ask a web server to send us certain information – for example, a funny GIF file – it comes with some extra metadata called a Header. Sometimes, this ‘extra’ information can be quite large relative to what we really want to receive. It’s not uncommon to see a 500-byte file come with a 1,000-byte header, which is a bit like sending one sheet of paper in a huge cardboard box. Google proposed to reduce this unnecessary waste by pre-storing a certain portion of the headers in the user’s browser, so that instead of sending the entire thing, you can send a pointer to the information already stored on the computer. This initiative was eventually shelved for some unknown reason, but the basic idea was sound.
Perkins Wants In
This explanation from Roel Pieper eased some of Tom Perkins’ concerns, but he was still not totally convinced. So he set a clear condition: he would join the meeting, provided he had free access to the electronics box to scrutinize it carefully and make sure Sloot was telling the truth. Pieper agreed.
At Pieper’s house they met the inventor, his son and the other investors in the group. Sloot had already demonstrated his invention to representatives of the Dutch bank, with great success, and was now asked to demonstrate it again to Perkins. Perkins recalls:
“Everyone and everything was ready for me, and with a minimum of chit-chat, I fell upon the two boxes set-up on a table in Roel’s office: the ‘recording’ box and the ‘playback’ box. They were open and ready for my examination, each about the size of a regular briefcase and each with a slot to receive a normal smart-card. I studied them very closely. The circuit boards were loaded with standard integrated circuits, nothing special at all, and there was nothing suspicious: no hidden disc, no secret antenna. Everything was very routine.
[…] We turned on the TV and I selected a program on cooking that was airing at that time. He took a smartcard out of his pocket and inserted it into the recording box, and pushed a button to start the process. We sipped our coffee while the boring kitchen class droned on. After about twenty minutes I announced that sufficient time had gone by. If the recording was being made in the normal way, the card memory would have been swamped thousands of times over.
The inventor removed the card and stuck it into the playback box, pusing another button to start the action.
It was all there! He could fast forward, he could backtrack. He could freeze the frame, he could speed up and slow down at will. The picture quality was almost equal to the original […] and the playback was a little better than standard American TV quality. “
Tom Perkins was shocked. He had never seen anything like it. On the spot he decided to join the company tor.
“I had not the slightest doubt that we were about to become the proprietors of a phenomenon which would accrue billions of dollars of value to the share owners. […] We were all excited. […] I studied Jan Sloot. He was in a state of…well…bliss… That’s the only word I can find to describe the expression on his face. He had labored in obscurity for fifteen years, and at this moment all his dreams, all his plans and fantasies were coming true. He was literally the happiest man I had ever seen.
[…] That night I couldn’t sleep very well. The Fifth Force opportunity had me in its grip. My mind was reeling with all the opportunities the technology would open: whole movies on small silicon chips; the picture telephone would be child’s play. […] satellites would be able to broadcast individualized programs, so little of their channel capacity would be required. […] I planned to get Rupert Murdoch involved once we were a little further along. His NewsCorp, being a major owner of content, could be transformed by our new low-cost system of delivery. […] How much should we licence? How much should we manufacture ourselves? My thoughts excitedly ran on and on.”
When morning came, Perkins called Pieper.
“Roel! I have been thinking. We should make some demonstration units for telcos and I want to get Rupert up to speed as soon as possible, and – “
“Tom, he died…”
“- and after we have got him interested, we should bring other players into the picture; I am thinking Sony should be among the first because – “
“After you left, he died.”
“Jan Sloot died.”
“What do you mean, he died?”
“Tom, not long after you left, he keeled over onto the floor. We tried CPR and then rushed him to the hospital, but he was already dead. He suffered a massive heart attack.”
Just two days before Fifth Force was to receive fifty million dollars from the Dutch bank – and Sloot himself was to pocket twenty million dollars – the inventor passed away unexpectedly, leaving everyone shocked.
The biggest problem was that Sloot, being paranoid as he was, did not share the secret of his invention with anyone. He explained the basic idea to Roel Pieper – and also outlined it in two patents he filed in the Netherlands – but did not reveal the finer details of how the software that converted the string of bits to actual video frames worked under the hood. He promised to tell only after the investment money went into his pocket.
Where was the source code of the software? This was the question that everyone was asking, but no one had an answer. As a preliminary step, the company placed guards around Sloot’s home, twenty-four-seven, to prevent any possibility of theft.
And there was another reason for the guards. Sloot’s wife and children claimed they had no idea where the secret software was, but some investors did not trust them. They suspected Sloot’s family would try to sell the source code to someone else for more money. The guards, then, were also there to prevent family members from taking the code out of the house, if it is indeed there. One of Sloot’s daughters did manage to sneak out of the house with two cardboard boxes full of equipment she had found in the late inventor’s study. The guards followed her car, but she managed to evade them.
Eventually, the investors reached an agreement with the family, who handed over the electronics box in exchange for a promise of several million dollars in the future. The company hired the services of an expert who scrutinized the box. He did not find the secret code in it, but he did find a hard disk. Sloot, as I mentioned, insisted all along that there is no storage device inside the electronics box, and that all the ‘smarts’ of his invention was in the software code… Sloot’s son explained that his father installed the hard disk just one day before his death, as a temporary solution for a faulty memory chip.
Severe conflicts erupted within the Fifth Force. Some investors accused Roel Pieper of trying to take over the company, and suspected that he was hiding the secret code himself. We could do a whole different episode about the intrigues and conflicts that flared up within Fifth Force following the death of the inventor, but there is no point. Sloot took his secret with him to the grave, and the revolutionary invention – if there ever was one – was lost, probably forever.
In the years since, Jan Sloot’s invention has become a legend, or maybe myth. If you search for it on YouTube, you will find quite a few conspiracy theories: for example, that big movie studios assassinated Sloot because he threatened their business model in some way. In the Netherlands, specifically, several documentaries have been made about Sloot’s life, and scripts have even been written for two films that have not yet materialized.
The Final Verdict
What, then, is the final verdict regarding Jan Sloot? Was he an authentic inventor of revolutionary technology, or a sophisticated crook who scammed his investors?
With no concrete evidence, we’ll probably never get a definite answer. But it seems that although Sloot’s basic idea is applicable on a theoretical level, it couldn’t have worked in reality. Why? As always, the devil is in the small details.
As an example, say that each frame in a video has only 4 pixels, and each pixel can be either black or white. If we list all the possible combinations of black and white pixels in the frame, we find that we have sixteen possible combinations. In other words, our lookup table will need to have 16 rows, one for each possible frame. This is easy enough when we’re talking about 4 pixels, but a 480 by 640 frame of video in color contains about 921,000 bits of information, which is about two to the power of seven million combinations – or two to the power of seven million frames that need to be stored in the lookup table.
This number is inconceivably, comically large. It makes all the atoms in the universe seem like nothing. So to say that Sloot’s idea is not practical with the technology we have today is an understatement, plus we need to remember that he claimed that his electronics box has no storage device at all. Where, then, is this hypothetical lookup table stored? We do not know.
But you know what? Let’s give Jan Sloot the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he found a way to take the pointers stored in the memory card and turn them, using some software algorithm, into a full frame that can be displayed on the screen. I know of no such algorithm, but let’s assume for a moment that it is possible. Even under this assumption, Sloot’s invention is still impossible. Why?
Again, let’s assume that each frame of the video has only 4 pixels – which means that our lookup table has 16 different rows or frames we can choose from.
Do you know how long should the string of bits in the input be, in order to choose one specific row out of those 16? Four bits. Yes, exactly the same number as the number of pixels in a frame. And if the number of bits in the pointer is the same as the number of pixels on the screen, we achieve nothing! We did not compress the information! If each frame has 921,000 bits of information, and a pointer to it is 921,000 bits of information, it’s the same, isn’t it?
Bottom line: Sloot’s idea could only work in very specific cases where the range of combinations, the number of rows in a lookup table we can choose from is relatively limited, so the strings of bits can be relatively short. It is quite clear that when it comes to a real video, with an almost infinite variety of color and movement, it wouldn’t work. It is hard to believe that Sloot did manage to invent what he claimed to have invented.
Which raises an obvious question: how did Roel Pieper, a veteran of the technology industry with a background in Computer Science, fail to notice this rather obvious flaw in Jan Sloot’s scheme?
In all honesty, I have no idea. Piper did not address this point in any of the interviews he gave about the affair, and for years kept saying that he’s certain that Sloot’s technology will one day be re-discovered.
I can offer one possible explanation, thought. As I mentioned in the beginning of the episode, Sloot’s story reminds me of the stories I wrote about in my book about Perpetual Motion Machines. Many of the stories I wrote about in that book were of crooks who tried to scam gullible investors.
All the classic elements of these scams are present, almost one by one, in Jan Sloot’s story: the paranoia and refusal to reveal the invention, fantastic demonstrations that are inconsistent with reality, the hard disk discovered inside the electronics box after his death – all known and proven techniques that technologically oriented scammers have used throughout history. These techniques have proven themselves to be extremely effective over the years, and many many smart and intelligent people have fallen for them. For all his experience and education, Roel Piper is ultimately a human, just like the rest of us, with emotions and desires. Perhaps the prospect of billions upon billions of dollars in profits clouded his judgement. After all, Tom Perkins too was also a very smart man, and he was more than willing to invest in Sloot’s idea.
Bottom line is – I cannot tell you with absolute certainty that Sloot was a crook, but if I had to bet on it, I know on which slot I would place my money.