Hypercomputation in A Computable Universe

This is the full version of my answer to a question formulated by Francisco A. Doria to me included in the Discussion Section of A Computable Universe, my edited volume being published by World Scientific and Imperial College Press coming out next month (already available in Asia) concerning whether I think if Hypercomputation is possible:

I was once myself a hypercomputation enthusiast (my Master’s thesis–in French–was on “Hyper calcul”, focused on feasibility of hypercomputational models). Paradoxically it wasn’t until I had a good knowledge of it that I started to better appreciate and to increasingly enjoy more the beauty of the digital (Turing) model. On the one hand, hypercomputational models do not converge in computational power. There are a plethora of possible models of hypercomputation while there is only one digital (in terms of computational power). I find it astonishing how little it takes to reach the full power of (Turing) universality, and I don’t see the power of universal machines as being subject to any limitation, all the opposite. I happen to think the question has a truth value and is ultimately susceptible of a physical answer. However, I don’t think the answer will emerge in the foreseeable future, if it ever does.

Still, I found Doria’s contribution to the subject interesting, as he points out a particular (“ideal”) model of hypercomputation that I think gets around some of Martin Davis’ objections (The Myth of Hypercomputation), though it doesn’t fully address the problem of verification. Unlike a Turing computation, which can in principle be verified by carrying it out by hand, step by step the inner working of a hypercomputer can only be followed by another hypercomputer. The caricature version of the problem is in the whimsical answer given by the (hyper?)computer Deep Thought in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams, which proposed “42″ as the “Ultimate (uncomputable?) answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything” [added parenthesis]. The only way to verify such an answer would be by building another, more powerful and even less understandable computer. This makes me wonder whether we ought not to favour meaningful computation over what could potentially be hypercomputation, even if hypercomputation were possible.

There is a strong analogy to the concept of proof in math. Mathematical proofs seem to fall into two types. They either serve to convince of the truth of a statement one wasn’t certain was true, or else to provide logical evidence that a statement intuitively believed to be true was in fact so (e.g. the normality of the mathematical constant pi). But in the latter case, why would one bother to provide a proof of a statement that nobody would argue to be false? It is because ideally math proofs should provide insight into why a statement is true, and not simply establish whether or not it is so. There are a few exceptions of course. Some come from mathematical practice, for example Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s last theorem. It is not clear whether Wiles’ proof provides any insight into the original question of the truth value of Fermat’s theorem (it does contribute to understand the connection among different powerful mathematical theories). Some other cases, especially among computer automated proofs, are of the same kind, often neglecting the fact that a proof is also about explanation (for humans). In that sense I think we should also favour meaningful mathematical proofs (from meaningful mathematical questions!), just as we should better appreciate meaningful (digital) computation.

The study of infinite objects has given us great insight into profound and legitimate questions of math and computation, such as the question of the nature of what is a number or what is a computation. And it has been immensely useful to focus on limits of computation in order to better understand it. It is at the boundary between decidability and undecidability that one seems best positioned to answer the question of what does computation mean. And there are some examples where the study of a hypercomputational model is more valuable not as a model of hypercomputation but by its ancillary results. Unlike most people, I think the contribution of, for example, Siegelmann’s ARNN model, has much more to say about computational complexity (the ARNN model relativises P = NP and P != NP in a novel fashion) and therefore classical computation than about hypercomputation! (Siegelmann’s ARNNs model has come to be strangely revered among hypercomputation enthusiasts).

While I may agree that the problem of verification of a computation is not necessarily an argument against hypercomputation (because it can also be used against digital computation in practice), the answer is only in the realm of physics and not in paper models. As Davis points out, it is not a surprise that encoding non-computable numbers as weights in an artificial neural network deals to non-computable computation! so, assuming real numbers exist the consequence is straightforward and the justification of a hypercomputational model just circular.

Other models of hypercomputation are just fundamentally wrong, such as Peter Wegner’s model of “interactive computation” that is claimed to break Turing’s barrier. For a recent commentary pointing out the the flaws of yet another hypercomputational claim, you can consult this entertaining blog post by Scott Aaronson and his Toaster-Enhanced Turing Machine.

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