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Machine begins to reconstruct 600 million-piece Stasi jigsaw

In the dying days of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Stasi officers were ordered to destroy their reports by shredding and then burning them. So numerous were the reports, that shredding machines stopped working, and officers were forced to tear the documents by hand. A ...
Machine begins to reconstruct 600 million-piece Stasi jigsaw
In the dying days of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Stasi officers were ordered to destroy their reports by shredding and then burning them. So numerous were the reports, that shredding machines stopped working, and officers were forced to tear the documents by hand. A problem with transport meant that the estimated 45 million A4 sheets of paper were not burned.

Since 1991, a team of 30 workers has been carrying out the painstaking task of reconstructing the documents, revealing new information on the activities of the Stasi and its collaborators. The team has now reconstructed the contents of 350 sacks, but with over 16,000 remaining, the task would require a further 400 to 800 years to complete by hand.

Now new technology developed by the Fraunhofer Institute of Production Facilities and Construction Technology (IPK) could complete the work in a fraction of the time. The E-Puzzler, the world's most sophisticated pattern-recognition machine, was completed in 2003, and has now received Government funding for a pilot project to reconstruct the contents of 44 sacks.

'The virtual puzzling follows the logic of manual puzzling,' explains Dr Bertram Nickolay, head of department at the IPK. The people working on the documents so far have used a number of identifying factors in order to establish whether or not two pieces belong alongside one another - shape, colour and handwriting, for example.

The new system involves first scanning the double-sided scraps of paper. The E-Puzzler then assesses the different attributes of the paper pieces in order to reduce the search parameters.

While the IPK team waited for the funding go-ahead from the Government, the machine has been put to a number of other uses. It has helped Chinese archaeologists to reconstruct shattered Terracotta Army figures, helped to solve a multinational tax evasion case, and pieced together hundreds of thousands of bank notes shredded by a mother who wished to stop her estranged daughter from claiming her inheritance.

This range of applications suggests that the E-Puzzler will be in high demand once it becomes commercially available. The scientists have already received requests for the machine from other former communist countries of eastern Europe, as well as from countries that have experienced a military dictatorship in the past.

Source: Fraunhofer Institute of Production Facilities and Construction Technology (IPK); press sources

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