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Next: Phase-Transitions and Computation Up: Computation, Dynamics and the Previous: Theory of Computation


Theory of Cellular Automata

Our discussion of finite automata outlined the workings of a class of simple machines. Though we did not study their behavior, when given carefully selected transition functions and placed into particular nested configurations, these simple machines can exhibit the full range of dynamical behavior: fixed point, periodic and even chaotic [4]. Since one of our aims is to look at whether or not an analog of universal computation exists in dynamical systems (and if so, what that analog is), we find that finite automata might provide a simply constructed system ideal for study. In fact, as we shall see, it is possible to generate a system of finite automata that not only exhibit the full spectrum of dynamical behaviors but are also already known to support universal computation!

A System of Automata

Imagine a lattice with a finite automaton residing at each lattice site. Each automaton is designed so that its current state is visible to its own input sensor and the input sensor of the surrounding automata. Each automaton shall take as input the state configuration displayed by its local neighborhood.

Typically, a CA neighborhood is defined as an automaton and its immediate neighbors. The two most common neighborhood templates used for a two-dimensional lattice are:

Figure: Two most common 2-D CA neighborhood templates.

Since the automata are using state configurations of a given template as their input source, the set of all possible configurations for a given template is isomorphic to the set of input symbols that the automata need recognize.

To simplify construction of CA systems, the following conventions are universally employed:

  1. All FA are defined to use the same set of state symbols $ Q $.
  2. All FA use the same neighborhood template $ N $.
  3. As a consequence of 1 and 2, all FA will be recognizing the exact same set of state configurations. Thus, it its natural to define all automata to use the same input symbol alphabet $ \Sigma $.
Typically, an FA's accepting states is ignored since the goal of a cellular automaton is not to accept or reject an input set, but to process an initial configuration of start states. This leaves the last, arguably most important, ingredient in a CA, the transition function.

Traditionally, the transition function is defined identically for all FA. This effectively makes all FA in a cellular automaton duplicates of an archetype FA. This criteria is known as uniformity. Most of the research and applications involving CA have been with uniform CA. Recently, some interest has shifted to non-uniform CAs since it has been shown that they can solve problems that uniform CAs can not [10].

Time is spent simplifying the CA for study because a cellular automaton having as few parameters as necessary allows for a high-level search for behavior indicative of computational ability.

Summary 1   Our current system places a finite automaton at each site in a $ D $-dimensional lattice. All automata have an identical set of states, use the same neighborhood template, recognize an identical set of input symbols and behave using the same transition function.

A valid concern might be that the system created thus far is too limited. Limited, possibly, to the extent that universal computation may in fact be impossible. However, the cellular automaton model constructed thus far is the same as that used in Conway's ``Game of Life''2. That the Game of Life has been proved to be capable of universal computation is our insurance that such a limited system is not too limited.

Note 1   The Game of Life is one particular choice of transition function for a two-dimensional, binary-state, uniform cellular automata using the 9-neighborhood template. The Game of Life has been proved to be universal.

Rule Space

We calculate the total number of rules (transition functions) that are available to a cellular automata system:

For any neighborhood template, $ N $, there are $ \left\vert N\right\vert $ cells. Each contains a finite automaton of $ \left\vert Q\right\vert $-states. Thus, there are $ \left\vert \Sigma \right\vert =\left\vert Q\right\vert ^{\left\vert N\right\vert } $ possible state configurations. By Proposition [*], the total number of possible rules is

$\displaystyle \tau =\left\vert output\right\vert ^{\left\vert input\right\vert ...
...ght\vert ^{\left( \left\vert Q\right\vert ^{\left\vert N\right\vert }\right) }.$

We record this as

Proposition 3   For any uniform system of cellular automata using the FA $ M=(Q,\Sigma ,q_{0},\delta ,A) $ and having a neighborhood template $ N $, there are $ \left\vert Q\right\vert ^{\left\vert Q\right\vert ^{\left\vert N\right\vert }} $ rule sets to choose from.

Example   The Game of Life is one particular rule choice for two-dimensional, binary-state, uniform cellular automata using the 9-neighborhood template. What is the total number of rules available in this system?

$\displaystyle \left\vert Q\right\vert ^{\left\vert Q\right\vert ^{\left\vert N\right\vert }}=2^{2^{9}}=2^{512}\approx 10^{154}$


Even though we have attempted to generate for ourselves a CA system of few parameters, the previous proposition shows us that the size of rule space grows at a phenomenal rate with the number of states and template size being used. Even if we were content to study just a single system, we are left with a large, undifferentiated space of CA rules [6,7].

Our initial goal should then be to impose a structure on the space of rules that generates a nice ordering on which we could apply an index (a parameterization). The most ideal structure would partition the space of CA rules into regions correlated with the various dynamical behaviors observable in CA. By then probing the regions that exhibit computational abilities, we can begin to draw connections between the ability for computation and associated dynamical behaviors

We introduce the parameterization employed by Dr. Christopher Langton during his artificial life explorations of CA space [8].

Definition 2   The $ \lambda $ parameter. For a uniform, $ \left\vert Q\right\vert $-state CA using neighborhood template $ N $ and FA $ M=(Q,\Sigma ,q_{0},\delta ,A) $, let $ s_{q}\in Q $ be known as the quiescent state and let $ \delta $ contain $ n $ transitions to $ s_{q} $. Let the remaining $ \left\vert Q\right\vert ^{\left\vert N\right\vert }-n $ transitions in $ \delta $ be filled by picking randomly and uniformly over the set of states $ Q\setminus \{s_{q}\} $. Then we say

$\displaystyle \lambda =\frac{\left\vert Q\right\vert ^{\left\vert N\right\vert }-n}{\left\vert Q\right\vert ^{\left\vert N\right\vert }}.$

To get an idea of how the $ \lambda $ parameter correlates with the generated rule set, note the following particular values for $ \lambda $:

$ \lambda =0.0 $ All transitions in $ \delta $ are to the quiescent state $ s_{q} $.
$ \lambda =1.0 $ No transitions in $ \delta $ are to the quiescent state $ s_{q} $.
$ \lambda =1.0-1/\left\vert Q\right\vert $ All states are equally represented.

We use the $ \lambda $ parameter precisely because it is deficient with respect to surveying the finer structure of CA space. This blurs the space we must search in, allowing us a low resolution survey in which we can identify the interesting areas for future, sharper exploration.3

Searching & Restricting

That $ \lambda =0.0 $ represents the most homogeneous rule sets and $ \lambda =1.0-1/\left\vert Q\right\vert $ represents the most heterogenous rule sets gives some indication that $ \lambda $ is providing the structure we need to effectively search CA space. In fact, since these values represent end points in the spectrum of rule choice, we shall restrict our search of CA space to those rules having $ \lambda $ values lying within this range.

Searching rule space is the process of stepping through the range $ 0.0\leq \lambda \leq 1.0-1/\left\vert Q\right\vert $ in discrete steps, and, at each sampled point, characterizing the CA behavior resulting for $ \delta $, the rule set randomly generated with respect to $ \lambda $. The goal of this process is to describe the relation between $ \lambda $ value and CA behavior. From these results comes the ability to focus in on $ \lambda $ values displaying interesting dynamical behavior and possibly harboring computational ability.

In order to make the studies of CA more tractable, there are a couple of further restrictions that are commonly placed on how $ \delta $ should be defined.

Definition 3   Quiescence restriction. Any neighborhood that is uniform in cell-state $ s_{q} $, the quiescent state, should map to $ s_{q} $.

A stronger form of this restriction is known as

Definition 4   Strong quiescence. A neighborhood uniform in any state, $ s_{i}\in Q $, should map to $ s_{i} $.

Almost universally observed in CA research is the restriction known as

Definition 5   Spatial isotropy. All planar rotations of a neighborhood-state will map to the same state.

This has the effect that the local dynamics is unable to make use of the global property of orientation [6].

A Relationship with Dynamical Systems

The study of dynamical systems involves the analysis of phase space. Phase space is the space of all possible values that a system's variables can take on. Each point in phase space represents particular values for all of the system's variables and we refer to this point as the system's state. A system's phase space (state space) covers all of the states in which a system could possibly be in.[1]

Example   A thermometer has a one-dimensional state space which can be mathematically idealized as the real number line. Each point on this line represents a particular state that the thermometer could be in corresponding with measured temperature. Note that this particular state space would have a practical lower bound at the point marking absolute zero.

Example   Relative to the center of Earth, every body has a 6-dimensional state space which can be represented by a 6 dimensional real vector space. Each point in this vector space represents a particular state that the body could be in corresponding with its position and velocity relative to the center of Earth. Three axes could be devoted to position, $ (x,y,z) $, and three devoted to velocity, $ (v_{x},v_{y},v_{z}) $.

As a system changes over time its variables change value. As variables change value, the state point forms a trajectory path in state space. Dynamical systems theory has been interested in generalizing system behavior through studying the geometry of the long term trajectories. Discovered is that there are three distinct behaviors any system may evolve into:

  1. fixed point attractive: Behavior stabilizes to a single point in phase space that is unchanging over time. In general, there is a clear correspondence between system start state and long term behavior; similar start states producing similar state path trajectories.
  2. periodic attractive: Behavior stabilizes into a closed path. In general, there is a clear correspondence between system start state and long term behavior; similar start states producing similar state path trajectories.
  3. chaotic attractive: Behavior never seems to stabilize, however the subspace in which the state path trajectory moves is restricted to a bounded manifold. This manifold often possesses complex, detailed structure. In general, similar start states do not produce similar state path trajectories. This last property is called sensitivity to initial conditions.
We say that the behavior is attractive because we take the view that there is some sort of attractor, or potential force, towards which the state path is evolving.

Example 1   A thermometer, initially at room temperature, is heated. Over time, the thermometer cools down to room temperature again. In phase space, this cooling process would appear as a point on the real number line sliding towards the value representing room temperature. We say that the state path trajectory is being attracted to the point representing room temperature. What would the attractor look like?

Fixed point attractive systems are attracted to a fixed point attractor, periodic attractive systems are attracted to a periodic attractor and chaotic attractive systems are attracted to a strange attractor. (See Figure4 [*]).

Figure: Three classes of attractor.

We are interested in studying how the behavior of cellular automata correlates with the choice of rule set and whether or not there is a sub-rule-space that lends itself to computational ability.

The obvious analogue for studying a dynamical system phase space is studying a cellular automata state space. We described the state of a dynamical system as the point in phase space representing the current values for all of its variables. In a similar manner, we can describe the global state of a CA by its current total configuration of cell states. This makes the CA phase space the set of all possible global configurations. Thus, the time evolution of a CA could be studied by observing the state-path trajectory in this set of global configurations. The natural question following the this analogy is: What kinds of dynamical behavior do cellular automata exhibit?

Wolfram's Qualitative CA Classes

In 1984, Stephen Wolfram undertook a detailed study of one-dimensional cellular automata and their relationship to dynamical systems [13]. His study identified four distinct classes of cellular automaton behavior (see Figure5 [*]):

Class I
From almost any initial configuration, cellular automata evolve to a homogeneous state after a finite number of time steps. Cellular automata in this class exhibit the maximal possible order on both global and local scales.
Class II
Cellular automata usually evolve to short period structures. Local and global order is exhibited, although not maximal.
Class III
Evolution of cellular automata from almost all possible initial states leads to aperiodic patterns. After sufficiently many time steps, the statistical properties of these patterns are typically the same for almost all initial configurations. Cellular automata in this class can exhibit maximal disorder on both global and local scales.
Class IV
Yields stable, periodic and propagating structures which can persist over arbitrary lengths of time. By properly arranging the propagating structures, final states with any cycle length may be obtained. The cellular automata in this class exhibit a great deal of local order.

Figure: Wolfram class examples. Each image a time-evolution of a 2-state CA on a circle using neighborhood size of 3 (central cell and its two neighbors).
% latex2html id marker 1496

For each CA class, Wolfram described the behavior in terms of dynamical systems theory:

Length of Transients

One way of probing a system's behavior is to put it into a state of non-typical behavior and watch the resulting behavior as the system moves towards its attractor. This interim behavior, between perturbed and settled behavior, is known as the transient behavior. Of interest is how the transient times change with regard to the size of the system under study.

For fixed-point and periodic systems, the effects of perturbations are restricted within a finite region of the FA array. In other words, beyond this region, the other cells in the array feel neither direct nor indirect effects of the perturbation. These finite regions are typically small and independent of the array size. The relation between the size of a cellular automaton and the average length of its transients is summarized:

fixed-point systems
Transient length is independent of system size.
periodic systems
Transient length is dependent on system size taking on a number of different forms related to how long it takes for localized regions to settle.
chaotic systems
Perturbations are quickly randomized, making their effect on local regions independent of system size. This would be akin to throwing a rock into a pond during a rain storm.
For systems in between, transients show a dependence on system size taking on a variety of functional forms. It is also possible for transients in this dynamical system regime to become effectively infinite -- the system spends virtually all its time on a transient.

Computation in CA

``Cellular automata can be viewed either as computers themselves or as logical universes, within which computers may be embedded.''6

As ``computers themselves'', cellular automata use their starting configuration as the data which their transition function is to process. This means the function $ \delta $ is representing the algorithm being computed for the input data.

As ``logical universes within which computers may be embedded'', a cellular automaton's starting configuration constitutes a computer with input data and algorithm. Suitable initial configurations can specify arbitrary algorithmic procedures and input data, thus the system serves as a general purpose computer. In this scenario, the CA transition function is acting as the ``physics'' under which this general purpose computer will operate.

The Game of Life is a concrete example that CA can support universal computation. However, that CA can be functionally universal has been known since their invention by Ulam and von Neumann in the 1940s. Von Neumann invented cellular automata because he was searching for a mechanism by which machines could self-reproduce. In his existence proof of such self-reproducing machines, von Neumann demonstrated the existence of a universal computer using a two-dimensional, 29-state cellular automaton with the 5-neighborhood template. From this proof stemmed subsequent proofs of automata with much fewer states supporting universal computation.

The technique for showing a system universal general involves constructing the necessary and sufficient parts of a computer inside of that proposed system. Some of these proofs involve the construction of Turing machines, other involve the construction of the more modern notion of a stored-program computer. An example of this latter technique was recently given when the spatialized prisoner's dilemma was shown to be universal. An appropriate choice for dilemma payoff matrix allows for the construction of a virtual Minsky register machine [5]. A Minsky register machine is a general purpose electronic computer.

What sort of factors or criteria are needed for a system to be capable of universal computation? It is the dynamics of the transition function ``physics'' that provides the conditions for these constructive proofs of universality. In particular, three fundamental features have been determined as necessary and sufficient for these constructions:

  1. The dynamics must support the storage of information. This entails the ability for local regions of state information to be preserved for arbitrarily long times.
  2. The dynamics must support the transmission of information. This entails the ability for small (local) regions of state information to propagate over arbitrarily long distances.
  3. Stored and transmitted information must be able to interact, resulting in a possible modification of one or the other.
Taken together, we see that a dynamical system must be able to correlate storage and transmission abilities (condition 3) and that this correlation can be arbitrarily long (conditions 1 & 2). Like a Turing machine tape, these correlation lengths should be finite, but unbounded.

In his development of the CA classification, Wolfram suggested that Class IV CA are capable of supporting computation, noting similarities between structures observed in his studies and the Game of Life [13]. Langton theorized that it is the association between Class IV CA and very long transients that explains their computational capacity and the difficulty to characterize their behavior.

A Search of CA Space

We give a description of one of Langton's [6,7] explorations of CA space via the $ \lambda $ parameter.

The search took place on a one-dimensional lattice having 128 sites wrapped into a circle. Thus, the time evolution of this system would be best displayed on a cylinder; each additional time-step being, conventionally, placed below the last. The lattice is uniform with 4-state FAs using a neighborhood of size 5 (the central cell, two cells on its left and two cells on its right). Each CA was initialized in on of two ways:

  1. A uniform, random configuration of initial states is given to all 128 cells.
  2. On a quiescent background, a uniform, random configuration of non-quiescent initial states is given to the center 20 cells.
The search produced the following primary dynamical features (see Figure7 [*]):

Figure: For selected $ \lambda $-values, a 256 step time-evolution of a corresponding CA.

By varying the $ \lambda $ parameter, we are able progress through CAs exhibiting maximal possible order to CAs exhibiting maximal possible disorder. At either end of the spectrum, behavior can be characterized as quickly decaying to its long-term attractor. In the middle of the spectrum, behavior becomes very unpredictable with long transients preceding a break down to long-term behavior. Also, we were able to witness a very rapid increase in transient length. This ultimately led to a new regime of dynamical behavior which had its own transient lengths very rapidly decrease as $ \lambda $ increased. This dynamical regime separating the periodic regime from the chaotic regime is known as the transition regime.

The transition regime is able to support propagating structures (as discussed above for $ \lambda \approx 0.45 $). These structures are very much like the ``gliders''8 seen in the Game of Life. It is interesting to note, that for CAs using the parameters of the Game of Life, the $ \lambda $ value corresponding to the Game of Life's particular rule choice lies within the transition regime. By increasing the lattice size for the above experiment, the existence of several different kinds of propagating structures can be observed. Langton found that the collision between a propagating structure and a static structure produces a structure which propagates in the opposite direction. It is exciting to realize that these interactions can create a basis for transmission, storage and modification of structurally embedded information. Thus, this transition regime seems to harbor the ingredients for constructing a universal computer.


... Life''2
The Game of Life is a system well studied for both scientific and recreational purposes. Many resources exist for learning and exploring this system. One such resource is Paul's Page of Conway's Life Miscellany
... exploration.3
Chris Langton notes that H. A. Gutowitz has defined a hierarchy of parameterization schemes in which $ \lambda $ is the simplest. References are given in his PhD Thesis [6] and Physica D article [7].
... Figure4
Fixed-point and periodic attractor images were borrowed from Dynamics: The geometry of Behavior [1]. Strange attractor was generated with's *BFE software suite [11].
... Figure5
Images were generated using the ``elementary CA'' form at Santa Fe Institute's Artificial Life OnLine website [2].
... embedded.''6
Chris Langton, Physica D 42, p. 15. [7]
... Figure7
Images were generated using the ``lambda CA form'' at Santa Fe Institute's Artificial Life OnLine website [2].
... ``gliders''8
Glider Description

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Next: Phase-Transitions and Computation Up: Computation, Dynamics and the Previous: Theory of Computation
Jeremy Avnet (brainsik); Senior Thesis, Mathematics; University California, Santa Cruz; 6th June 2000; email: jeremy (at)