### Comments on Turing’s very first Universal machine approaching Turing’s 100th. birthday anniversary

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010The idea that a machine could perform the tasks of any other machine is the description of a Universal (Turing) machine. Its invention is considered by many to have been one of the major landmarks giving rise to the field of computer science. ‘Universal’ means that one can ‘program’ a general-purpose machine to perform the tasks of any specific-purpose machine. Turing machines are to this day the central object of study in the theory of computation.

In an attempt to understand how the very first universal machine was described in Turing’s original 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” I spent half a day re-reading the paper (and its corrected version by Donald Davies, published in The Essential Turing by Jack Copeland), trying to decode it, only to find that it is written in something like an anticipation of a (Turing-complete) subroutine-oriented programming language which is impossible to rewrite in a traditional transition table. So if one really tries hard, one ends up encoding an arbitrary universal Turing machine, not Alan Turing’s first universal Turing machine.

Although the paper has all the primary elements of a traditional description of a Turing machine (Turing’s ‘a-machine’ description), the fact that it used multiple conventions for describing increasingly complex machines was Emile Post’s strongest critique. In a letter to Church, Turing replied to Post’s appreciation, arguing that his use of more than one convention when building his universal machine did not affect the final result, though he did admit it made it hard to decipher.

The result is that not only would it be a giant machine in terms of states and symbols, but the number of actual colors that it may need seems to be unknown. It is only known to assume 18 states, and to simulate Turing’s second a-machine example with 23 instructions (here the product of states and colors does not necessarily lead to the number of instructions in Turing’s formalism, because his transitions are not total functions).

In the traditional 5-tuple form, Turing’s original universal machine could be written as (Mathematica notation):

{q1, “blank”} -> {q2, P0, R}

{DA, D} -> {DAA, DC, R}

{q2, “blank”} -> {q3, E, R}

{DAA, D} -> {DAAA, D, R}

{q3, “blank”} -> {q4, P1, R}

{DAAA, D} -> {DAAAA, DCC, R}

{q4, “blank”} -> {q1, E, R}

{DAAAA, D} -> {DA, D, R}

But notice that no state starting by q leads to a state starting by D because D (states are called m-configurations in Turing’s original jargon) are rather prefix subroutines defined in Turing’s paper while q’s are actually traditional Turing machine states. In Turing’s paper E is, for example, an erasing subroutine. Some other ‘m-configurations’ require scanning the whole tape several times (which is what one would do if one is asked to emulate another Turing machine), and so on. So most of the behavior description of the machine is encoded as strange strings of letters.

Nevertheless, Turing’s choice is somehow clever from a programmer perspective, he proceeded in the way one would do so today for designing an implementing a universal computer. One would hardly do so by describing the basic elements, but rather by constructing higher level subroutines describing a machine function and based itself in one or more other subroutines up to the level of states and symbols. Think of programming at the level of the machine language v. programming in an intermediate level language. Writing a universal Turing machine in detail in terms of states and symbols from the beginning leading to complete lost and misunderstanding, just as it would so if one pursuits the implementation of a complex piece of software writing binary code or even in a pure assembler language. Turing’s description provides a better understanding, not trivial though, of what a universal Turing machine does to carry out the computation of any other Turing machine by sketching and grouping intuitively the machine operations into these program subroutines.

Unlike today, that one can simply make Wolfram|Alpha to run any Turing machine simulation such as a random 2-state 5-color Turing machine or the 4-state 2-color Busy Beaver (for a list of other Turing machine examples one can type in WolfraAlpha click here), Turing had no computer to ran and test his code, it is not a surprise that his universal machine code came together with several glitches. It was quite amusing to see that the first ever program written for a digital computer was already bedeviled by bugs. And this program was the actual implementation of the very first universal Turing machine by Alan Turing himself.

If Turing had not died in 1954, at the age of only 41, next June 23 (2010) he would have 98 years old. As a tribute to his work I’ve set up the following webpage gathering most, if not all, the public images known of him visualturing.org

For his 100th birthday anniversary a series of events are being organized. 2012 will not only be the year of the Olympic Games that Turing would have particularly followed in his own country (UK) as an enthusiast long distance runner but also The Alan Turing Year to which I’m honored to be part of as a member of the advisory committee representing Wolfram’s Science Group.