It turns out that shredding your documents isn’t as effective as you thought it was.
As the East German Communist regime collapsed in 1989, officials of the State Security Service (Stasi) shredded anything they could get their hands on, leaving behind around 16,000 bags of paper shreds. Until now, that meant that these documents were lost to historians and to the German public. A recent story in The Economist describes the work of Dr. Bertram Nickolay of the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology in Berlin who has figured out a way to put all those shreds back together again in a digital environment.
Given that there are an estimated 600 million paper shreds in all those bags, it would take humans literally forever to do the job, but computers are more patient than we are. All they need is a system and enough electricity to keep grinding away and eventually they will be able to finish the job. It will still take a very long time in data processing years (and human years), but I’m a patient man.
Essentially, the system works like this. Each shred is scanned, then sorted according to such things as texture, color, the existence of lines of the page (or not), whether it has handwritten text, and so on. Because the Stasi shredders seemingly did not mix up the shredded paper across bags, Dr. Nickolay’s computers have small universes to work with–each bag being a universe. Then they sort and resort and resort the shreds until they all fit together. The system he has designed is also “intelligent” in the sense that it learns from its mistakes and keeps creating newer, better versions of itself.
According to The Economist story, Dr. Nickolay is planning to try to reconstruct 400 bags of shreds over the next two years to perfect his system. Once that final test is complete, I can’t imagine how much longer it will take to reconstruct the other 15,600 bags. But as I said, I’m a patient man.