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While Kolmogorov (1965) complexity is the accepted absolute measure of information content in an individual finite object, a similarly absolute notion is needed for the information distance between two individual objects, for example, two pictures. We give several natural definitions of a universal information metric, based on length of shortest programs for either ordinary computations or reversible (dissipationless) computations. It turns out that these definitions are equivalent up to an additive logarithmic term. We show that the information distance is a universal cognitive similarity distance. We investigate the maximal correlation of the shortest programs involved, the maximal uncorrelation of programs (a generalization of the Slepian-Wolf theorem of classical information theory), and the density properties of the discrete metric spaces induced by the information distances. A related distance measures the amount of nonreversibility of a computation. Using the physical theory of reversible computation, we give an appropriate (universal, antisymmetric, and transitive) measure of the thermodynamic work required to transform one object in another object by the most efficient process. Information distance between individual objects is needed in pattern recognition where one wants to express effective notions of "pattern similarity" or "cognitive similarity" between individual objects and in thermodynamics of computation where one wants to analyze the energy dissipation of a computation from a particular input to a particular output.
Date of Publication: July 1998