It’s been understood for decades that, if you take a simple discrete rule—say, a cellular automaton like Conway’s Game of Life—and iterate it over and over, you can very easily get the capacity for universal computation. In other words, your cellular automaton becomes able to implement any desired sequence of AND, OR, and NOT gates, store and retrieve bits in a memory, and even (in principle) run Windows or Linux, albeit probably veerrryyy sloowwllyyy, using a complicated contraption of thousands or millions of cells to represent each bit of the desired computation. If I’m not mistaken, a guy named Wolfram even wrote an entire 1200-page-long book about this phenomenon (see here for my 2002 review).
But suppose we want more than mere computational universality. Suppose we want “physical” universality: that is, the ability to implement any transformation whatsoever on any finite region of the cellular automaton’s state, by suitably initializing the complement of that region. So for example, suppose that, given some 1000×1000 square of cells, we’d like to replace every “0” cell within that square by a “1” cell, and vice versa. Then physical universality would mean that we could do that, eventually, by some “machine” we could build outside the 1000×1000 square of interest.
You might wonder: are we really asking for more here than just ordinary computational universality? Indeed we are. To see this, consider Conway’s famous Game of Life. Even though Life has been proved to be computationally universal, it’s not physically universal in the above sense. The reason is simply that Life’s evolution rule is not time-reversible. So if, for example, there were a lone “1” cell deep inside the 1000×1000 square, surrounded by a sea of “0” cells, then that “1” cell would immediately disappear without a trace, and no amount of machinery outside the square could possibly detect that it was ever there.
Furthermore, even cellular automata that are both time-reversible and computationally universal could fail to be physically universal. Suppose, for example, that our CA allowed for the construction of “impenetrable walls,” through which no signal could pass. And suppose that our 1000×1000 region contained a hollow box built out of these impenetrable walls. Then, by definition, no amount of machinery that we built outside the region could ever detect whether there was a particle bouncing around inside the box.
So, in summary, we now face a genuinely new question:
Does there exist a physically universal cellular automaton, or not?
This question had sort of vaguely bounced around in my head (and probably other people’s) for years. But as far as I know, it was first asked, clearly and explicitly, in a lovely 2010 preprint by Dominik Janzing.
Today, I’m proud to report that Luke Schaeffer, a first-year PhD student in my group, has answered Janzing’s question in the affirmative, by constructing the first cellular automaton (again, to the best of our knowledge) that’s been proved to be physically universal. Click here for Luke’s beautifully-written preprint about his construction, and click here for a webpage that he’s prepared, explaining the details of the construction using color figures and videos. Even if you don’t have time to get into the nitty-gritty, the videos on the webpage should give you a sense for the intricacy of what he accomplished.
Very briefly, Luke first defines a reversible, two-dimensional CA involving particles that move diagonally across a square lattice, in one of four possible directions (northeast, northwest, southeast, or southwest). The number of particles is always conserved. The only interesting behavior occurs when three of the particles “collide” in a single 2×2 square, and Luke gives rules (symmetric under rotations and reflections) that specify what happens then.
Given these rules, it’s possible to prove that any configuration whatsoever of finitely many particles will “diffuse,” after not too many time steps, into four unchanging clouds of particles, which thereafter simply move away from each other in the four diagonal directions for all eternity. This has the interesting consequence that Luke’s CA, when initialized with finitely many particles, cannot be capable of universal computation in Turing’s sense. In other words, there’s no way, using n initial particles confined to an n×n box, to set up a computation that continues to do something interesting after 2n or 22^n time steps, let alone forever. On the other hand, using finitely many particles, one can also prove that the CA can perform universal computation in the Boolean circuit sense. In other words, we can implement AND, OR, and NOT gates, and by chaining them together, can compute any Boolean function that we like on any fixed number of input bits (with the number of input bits generally much smaller than the number of particles). And this “circuit universality,” rather than Turing-machine universality, is all that’s implied anyway by physical universality in Janzing’s sense. (As a side note, the distinction between circuit and Turing-machine universality seems to deserve much more attention than it usually gets.)
Anyway, while the “diffusion into four clouds” aspect of Luke’s CA might seem annoying, it turns out to be extremely useful for proving physical universality. For it has the consequence that, no matter what the initial state was inside the square we cared about, that state will before too long be encoded into the states of four clouds headed away from the square. So then, “all” we need to do is engineer some additional clouds of particles, initially outside the square, that
- intercept the four escaping clouds,
- “decode” the contents of those clouds into a flat sequence of bits,
- apply an arbitrary Boolean circuit to that bit sequence, and then
- convert the output bits of the Boolean circuit into new clouds of particles converging back onto the square.
So, well … that’s exactly what Luke did. And just in case there’s any doubt about the correctness of the end result, Luke actually implemented his construction in the cellular-automaton simulator Golly, where you can try it out yourself (he explains how on his webpage).
So far, of course, I’ve skirted past the obvious question of “why.” Who cares that we now know that there exists a physically-universal CA? Apart from the sheer intrinsic coolness, a second reason is that I’ve been interested for years in how to make finer (but still computer-sciencey) distinctions, among various “candidate laws of physics,” than simply saying that some laws are computationally universal and others aren’t, or some are easy to simulate on a standard Turing machine and others hard. For ironically, the very pervasiveness of computational universality (the thing Wolfram goes on and on about) makes it of limited usefulness in distinguishing physical laws: almost any sufficiently-interesting set of laws will turn out to be computationally universal, at least in the circuit sense if not the Turing-machine one!
On the other hand, many of these laws will be computationally universal only because of extremely convoluted constructions, which fall apart if even the tiniest error is introduced. And in other cases, we’ll be able to build a universal computer, all right, but that computer will be relatively impotent to obtain interesting input about its physical environment, or to make its output affect the gross features of the CA’s physical state. If you like, we’ll have a recipe for creating a universe full of ivory-tower, eggheaded nerds, who can search for counterexamples to Goldbach’s Conjecture but can’t build a shelter to protect themselves from a hail of “1” bits, or even learn whether such a hail is present or not, or decide which other part of the CA to travel to.
As I see it, Janzing’s notion of physical universality is directly addressing this “egghead” problem, by asking whether we can build not merely a universal computer but a particularly powerful kind of robot: one that can effect a completely arbitrary transformation (given enough time, of course) on any part of its physical environment. And the answer turns out to be that, at least in a weird CA consisting of clouds of diagonally-moving particles, we can indeed do that. The question of whether we can also achieve physical universality in more natural CAs remains open (and in his Future Work section, Luke discusses several ways of formalizing what we mean by “more natural”).
As Luke mentions in his introduction, there’s at least a loose connection here to David Deutsch’s recent notion of constructor theory (see also this followup paper by Deutsch and Chiara Marletto). Basically, Deutsch and Marletto want to reconstruct all of physics taking what can and can’t be constructed (i.e., what kinds of transformations are possible) as the most primitive concept, rather than (as in ordinary physics) what will or won’t happen (i.e., how the universe’s state evolves with time). The hope is that, once physics was reconstructed in this way, we could then (for example) state and answer the question of whether or not scalable quantum computers can be built as a principled question of physics, rather than as a “mere” question of engineering.
Now, regardless of what you think about these audacious goals, or about Deutsch and Marletto’s progress (or lack of progress?) so far toward achieving them, it’s certainly a worthwhile project to study what sorts of machines can and can’t be constructed, as a matter of principle, both in the real physical world and in other, hypothetical worlds that capture various aspects of our world. Indeed, one could say that that’s what many of us in quantum information and theoretical computer science have been trying to do for decades! However, Janzing’s “physical universality” problem hints at a different way to approach the project: starting with some far-reaching desire (say, to be able to implement any transformation whatsoever on any finite region), can we engineer laws of physics that make that desire possible? If so, then how close can we make those laws to “our” laws?
Luke has now taken a first stab at answering these questions. Whether his result ends up merely being a fun, recreational “terminal branch” on the tree of science, or a trunk leading to something more, probably just depends on how interested people get. I have no doubt that our laws of physics permit the creation of additional papers on this topic, but whether they do or don’t is (as far as I can see) merely a question of contingency and human will, not a constructor-theoretic question.