In a recent paper I have advanced some conjectures using a coefficient that renders aspects of the qualitative behavior of complex systems in quantitative terms. It measures the sensitivity of a system to external stimuli, its apparent ability to (efficiently) transfer information from the input through the output.

In a previous paper, and in a quite different context, I proposed the conjecture that systems capable of (efficient) Turing universal computation had large coefficients (greater than 1), meaning that they are sensitive enough to external stimuli.

It is evident that a system that doesn’t react to its input is unlikely to be (efficiently) programmable, which is what Turing universality is about. Recall that Turing universality is the notion of a machine capable of simulating any other machine of the same type. More formally, if U is a universal Turing machine, anda Turing machine with input s, one can run U with input, that is>, and U will then behave like M with input s, where M and s are any Turing machine and any input.

In that paper I used this coefficient as a phase transition detector, and it so happened that the way in which it was defined made it eminently capable of classifying the behavior of cellular automata and other systems, even yielding Wolfram’s well-known classes of behavior. The paper is available online here.

Now I have advanced another set of conjectures, this time relating a set of Turing machines defined by the way they behave: Busy Beaver Turing machines. These are machines that do a lot of work before halting. More formally, they print more non-blank symbols and have the greatest runtime among machines of the same size (number of states and symbols). I have written a program showing all known and candidate Busy Beaver machines (in Mathematica, runnable on your browser by downloading the Mathematica CDF player):

Let bb(n) be the Busy Beaver with n states (and 2 symbols). The conjectures say that:

1. (strong version): For all n > 2, bb(n) is capable of universal computation.

2. (sparse version): For some n, bb(n) is capable of universal computation.

3. (weak version): For all n > 2, bb(n) is capable of (weak) universal

computation.

4. (weakest version): For some n, bb(n) is capable of (weak) universal

computation.

They are based on the fact that Busy Beaver machines are complex, in Bennett’s sense. Bennett’s notion of “logical depth” is the idea of capturing the complexity of a string s in terms of the unfolding time of the shortest (or set of nearly shortest) programs producing the said string. The outputs of Busy Beaver Turing machines are therefore, by definition, the ones with the greatest logical depth. If they print more symbols than any other machine and take the greatest time to do so, they have maximal logical depth. Busy Beaver machines are also machines that produce their outputs with the minimum resources (if there were shorter machines producing the same outputs those would be the Busy Beaver machines), hence they are the shortest programs producing the strings. Busy Beaver machines are therefore by definition very deep (in Bennett’s definition of complexity), meaning they are complex in this sense (logical depth is also profoundly related to Kolmogorov complexity, given that the definition involves the shortest(s) programs).

Besides being deep, Busy Beavers have another characteristic: they halt. So they don’t just do their stuff without worrying about whether to stop. One can easily encode a “Busy Beaver” that loops and produces any arbitrary number of non-blank symbols say for example, an infinite loop printing 1s), but Busy Beavers don’t. They save a state to halt at the end. Machines that are not able to halt (the majority) cannot be Turing universal, because they wouldn’t ever produce any output, simply because by definition something is an output if the machine has halted. But machines that always halt would be decidable, and therefore not universal either.

So among the things to attempt to amount to evidence in favor of the positive answer of the conjectures of Turing universality for Busy Beaver machines, is to encode some input such that they don’t stop (and to prove so), as a first step towards a prove for universality. If Busy Beavers are capable of halting for some inputs (e.g. empty input, as this is entailed in the definition of a Busy Beaver) but are also capable of not halting for others, this would strengthen the conjectures. Busy Beavers may, however, be very different among them, as they are defined by behavior, rather than their specific inner workings, but if the behavior of a Busy Beaver in any way determines something that captures a property of all them, one could use the same argument in favor or against them towards proving or disproving these conjectures.

There seems no easy way to prove that all Busy Beavers are capable of universal computation, but such a proof, if it exists, would be the first to characterize a non-trivial set of well defined universal Turing machines. Non-trivial, because of course one can build a universal Turing machine and keep adding resources and proving that the resulting machines are all universal, just as happens with Turing-complete programming languages. But Busy Beaver machines would be characterized by nothing but a qualitative behavior. This makes the assertions of the conjectures more interesting.

It could be the case that Busy Beavers are not capable of Turing universality for blank tapes. In fact, Michel Pascal, a world expert in the field of Busy Beavers, thinks that Busy Beavers may be capable of –weak– universal computation (personal communication), that is, starting from non-blank tape configurations (e.g. a periodic or bi-periodic tape configuration). This accords with another conjecture in Computer Science, the Collatz sequence. The conjecture says that whichever number you start with, if n is even, divide it by 2 to get n / 2. If n is odd, multiply it by 3 and add 1 to obtain 3n + 1; you will end always end up reaching 1. I have also written 2 small computer programs (also in Mathematica) illustrating this conjecture:

According to Michel, Busy Beavers would be related to Collatz-type functions (see his paper “Small Turing machines and generalized busy beaver competition“), with conjectures that are related but more general (in the context of small Turing machines) to the ones I’m talking about.

Today, we know that Turing universality requires very little. For example, Wolfram conjectured that a 2,3 Turing machine was universal, on the basis of the aspects ot its behavior that he studied. And as proven by Alex Smith, this 2,3 TM turns out to be capable of universal computation. The machine is surprisingly small, and indeed is the smallest it can possibly be, given that we know that no 2,2 Turing machine can be capable of Turing universality (proof recently provided by Maurice Margensten in a Complex Systems paper). Today we also know many minimialistic systems capable of universal computation: Conway’s game of Life, Wolfram’s Rule 110, many Post-tag systems and a variation called Cyclic tag systems, Wang tiles. And at least 2 important researchers in the field have recently argued for the ubiquity of Turing universality (Martin Davis and Maurice Margenstern myself, along the lines anticipated by Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence).

Finally, I advanced a last conjecture relating Busy Beavers and my coefficient C in this paper, establishing that:

C(bb(n)) > 0

That is, that Busy Beavers have a positive coefficient C, i.e. are quite sensitive to input stimuli, which, if the very first conjecture is true (that Turing universal machines have a large coefficient) makes this last coefficient a good place to start to make the case for the universality of Busy Beavers.

The paper “On the Dynamic Qualitative Behavior of Universal Computation” at ArXiv and has been recently published in the Journal of Complex Systems (vol. 20-3) also available online here.