### Striking new Beeping Busy Beaver champion

Tuesday, July 27th, 2021For the past few days, I was bummed about the sooner-than-expected loss of Steven Weinberg. Even after putting up my post, I spent hours just watching old interviews with Steve on YouTube and reading his old essays for gems of insight that I’d missed. (Someday, I’ll tackle Steve’s celebrated quantum field theory and general relativity textbooks … but that day is not today.)

Looking for something to cheer me up, I was delighted when *Shtetl-Optimized* reader Nick Drozd reported a significant new discovery in BusyBeaverology—one that, I’m proud to say, was directly inspired by my Busy Beaver survey article from last summer (see here for blog post).

Recall that BB(n), the n^{th} Busy Beaver number (technically, “Busy Beaver shift number”), is defined as the maximum number of steps that an n-state Turing machine, with 1 tape and 2 symbols, can make on an initially all-0 tape before it invokes a Halt transition. Famously, BB(n) is not only uncomputable, it grows faster than any computable function of n—indeed, computing anything that grows as quickly as Busy Beaver is equivalent to solving the halting problem.

As of 2021, here is the extent of human knowledge about concrete values of this function:

- BB(1) = 1 (trivial)
- BB(2) = 6 (Lin 1963)
- BB(3) = 21 (Lin 1963)
- BB(4) = 107 (Brady 1983)
- BB(5) ≥ 47,176,870 (Marxen and Buntrock 1990)
- BB(6) > 7.4 × 10
^{36,534}(Kropitz 2010) - BB(7) > 10
^{2×10^10^10^18,705,352}(“Wythagoras” 2014)

As you can see, the function is reasonably under control for n≤4, then “achieves liftoff” at n=5.

In my survey, inspired by a suggestion of Harvey Friedman, I defined a variant called Beeping Busy Beaver, or BBB. Define a *beeping Turing machine* to be a TM that has a single designated state where it emits a “beep.” The *beeping number* of such a machine M, denoted b(M), is the largest t such that M beeps on step t, or ∞ if there’s no finite maximum. Then BBB(n) is the largest finite value of b(M), among all n-state machines M.

I noted that the BBB function grows uncomputably *even given an oracle for the ordinary BB function*. In fact, computing anything that grows as quickly as BBB is equivalent to solving any problem in the second level of the arithmetical hierarchy (where the computable functions are in the zeroth level, and the halting problem is in the first level). Which means that pinning down the first few values of BBB should be *even* *more* breathtakingly fun than doing the same for BB!

In my survey, I noted the following four concrete results:

- BBB(1) = 1 = BB(1)
- BBB(2) = 6 = BB(2)
- BBB(3) ≥ 55 > 21 = BB(3)
- BBB(4) ≥ 2,819 > 107 = BB(4)

The first three of these, I managed to get on my own, with the help of a little program I wrote. The fourth one was communicated to me by Nick Drozd even before I finished my survey.

So as of last summer, we knew that BBB coincides with the ordinary Busy Beaver function for n=1 and n=2, then breaks away starting at n=3. We didn’t know how quickly BBB “achieves liftoff.”

But Nick continued plugging away at the problem all year, and he now claims to have resolved the question. More concretely, he claims the following two results:

- BBB(3) = 55 (via exhaustive enumeration of cases)
- BBB(4) ≥ 32,779,478 (via a newly-discovered machine)

For more, see Nick’s announcement on the Foundations of Mathematics email list, or his own blog post.

Nick actually writes in terms of yet another Busy Beaver variant, which he calls BLB, or “Blanking Beaver.” He defines BLB(n) to be the maximum finite number of steps that an n-state Turing machine can take before it first “wipes its tape clean”—that is, sets all the tape squares to 0, as they were at the very beginning of the computation, but as they were *not* at intermediate times. Nick has discovered a 4-state machine that takes 32,779,477 steps to blank out its tape, thereby proving that

- BLB(4) ≥ 32,779,477.

Nick’s construction, when investigated, turns out to be based on a “Collatz-like” iterative process—exactly like the BB(5) champion and most of the other strong Busy Beaver contenders currently known. A simple modification of his construction yields the lower bound on BBB.

Note that the Blanking Beaver function does *not* have the same sort of super-uncomputable growth that Beeping Busy Beaver has: it merely grows “normally” uncomputably fast, like the original BB function did. Yet we see that BLB, just like BBB, already “achieves liftoff” by n=4, rather than n=5. So the real lesson here is that *4-state Turing machines can already do fantastically complicated things on blank tapes*. It’s just that the usual definitions of the BB function artificially prevent us from seeing that; they hide the uncomputable insanity until we get to 5 states.