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turingcentenary (1)

turingcentenary (1)

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Published by Paul Cockshott

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Published by: Paul Cockshott on Mar 30, 2012
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Tangled Tapes: Infinity, Interaction and TuringMachines
Paul Cockshott(1), Greg Michaelson(2)
(1) School of Computer Science, University of Glasgow(2) School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences, Heriot-Watt University
In the sixty-five years since Turing introduced his eponymousmachines, many popular misconceptions about their properties have be-come current. In this paper, we explore the notions that Turing machineshave infinite tapes and that their expressive power is limited by by aninability to interact with the wider environment during computations.
1 Introduction
As time passes since the death of a great scientist, they become betterknown. More people have heard of them, and more people have heard of their work. But it does not follow that more people actually know theirwork or still read it. Newton like Darwin and Freud is still famous, buthow many still read Newton in the original?As time passes their work becomes known at second or third hand, andin the process is changed. Things are omitted, and things which, whilstthey were the result of the great author’s work, were other’s ideas, areattributed to them.For instance one of us who was brought up on Dawkins and Gould,with their accounts of the opposition between Darwinian and Lamarkianevolution, was surprised to discover in Darwin’s
Descent of Man 
[3] thathe was a firm believer in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Alater, post Mendel, orthodoxy has been projected back onto Darwin. Oneencountered not the original Darwin, but a stylised version, modified bymore recent concerns.Turing, who is so much more recent than Darwin and whose publicationswere much less extensive, is already showing signs of being transformedin a similar way. Far more computer scientists have read accounts of theTuring Machine in textbooks than have read his original description, andas a result a number of misconceptions have taken hold. In this paper, weexplore two misconceptions about properties of Turing machine tapes,that is that they are infinite and that they may not be subject to externalchange during computations.
2 Finite and infinite tapes
There is a widespread notion that Turing machines have infinite tapes.However, in Turing’s original paper[17] there is no mention of the tape
having to be infinite; instead Turing says: "The machine is supplied witha “tape”, (the analogue of paper) running through it, and divided intosections (called “squares”) each capable of bearing a “symbol”. At anymoment there is just one square, say the r-th, bearing the symbol S(r)which is “in the machine”". The length of the tape is not specified.The tape is not specified as infinite, and, since he is concerned withfinite computation, it is clear that any terminating programme will haveonly modified a finite portion of the tape, so what he was assuming waseffectively a finite but unbounded tape. An infinite tape would also haverequired an infinite amount of energy to accelerate and decelerate it oneach step and would thus have been incompatible with requirement thatcomputable numbers be "calculable by finite means".It is possible that this notion of an infinite Turing machine tape arosefrom the independent elaboration of Emil Post’s eponymous machine[15]at around the same time. Post also uses the analogy of a “problem solveror worker” manipulating “spaces or boxesbut “the symbol space is toconsist of a two way infinite sequence.Perhaps more significantly, in 1947 Turing said in a lecture that, someyears earlier, he had been investigating the problem of machines with “an infinite memory contained on an infinite tape”[19]. It is not clearwhether he was misrecollecting what he published in [17] or refering tounpublished investigations. to be infinite but had at least to be ’veryextensive’. It is probably from this lecture by Turing himself, that theidea that the original Turing Machine required an infinite memory arose.In practice this difference between infinite and finite but unboundedmemories is not important. We know that in reality all our digital com-puters are finite machines, but such is the vastness of the finite, that evena tiny embedded microprocessor like the PIC with a paltry 68 bytes of RAM has so many potential states that it would take about
timesthe age of the universe to run through them all. What is importantfor a general purpose digital computer is that its memory be ’exten-sive’ and that this memory is modifiable during programme execution.The size of the memory is important, bur only insofar as size constrainsthe datasets that can be practically processed. The organisation of thememory, whether it has random or sequential access, is also of practicalimportance, since random access stores are faster than sequential accessones. But neither the size nor the organisation affect the type of problemthat the computer can address.Machines such as the ACE may be regarded as practical ver-sions of this same type of machine. There is at least a very closeanalogy. Digital computing machines all have a central mecha-nism or control and some very extensive form of memory. Thememory does not have to be infinite, but it certainly needs tobe very large.[19]Subsequently, there is a curious divergence in accounts of Turing machinetapes in books on computability theory. In a collection of twentyone suchbooks held by one author, ten refer directly or obliquely to the tape as in-finite - see Figure 3. These include the classic texts by Davis[4], “two-wayinfinite sequence”(p3), Hopcroft and Ullman[9], “infinity of cells”(1969),
Manna[12],“The tape...is infinite to the right”(p228), and Harel[8], “aninfinite tape”(p21). Finally, Minsky[13] offers a compromise: “The tape is regarded as infinite in both directions. But...one canthink of the tape as really finite at any particular time.”(p118)
3 Interaction and Computation
The infinite tape seems to have been the first stylisation of the Turing’suniversal computer. A more recent stylisation is the idea that accordingto Turing, universal computers are not allowed to perform input out-put. Wegner proposes that Turing Machines correspond to the batchmainframes running procedural languages, and that workstations run-ning object oriented languages correspond to an entirely new class of machines which he calls interaction machines.Turing machines transform strings of input symbols on a tapeinto output strings by sequences of state transitions. Each stepreads a symbol from the tape, performs a state transition, writesa symbol on the tape, and moves the reading head. Turing ma-chines cannot, however, accept external input while they com-pute; they shut out the external world and are therefore unableto model the passage of external time.[21]We will consider the two issues of input output and the passage of timeseparately. If one looks at Turing’s 1937 paper it is true that he makesno mention of input output and the machine certainly does work simplyby processing a single input tape.The lack of any dedicated input output hardware in the 1937 proposalcould clearly have been circumvented by appropriate programming. Onecould arrange that say every 3rd square on the tape was to be reservedfor input data, and allow the programmer to write input data onto these3rd squares as the computation proceeds. These 3rd squares would thenconstitute an input channel multiplexed onto the tape.Allow the input channel to contain blanks, Xs, 0s or 1s,. Once a 0 or 1has been read from the input channel the machine overwrites it with anX. The machine can poll for input by inspecting the next character inthe input channel, if it is blank, move back a certain number of positionsto eject the tape and allow the programmer to optionally write a 0 or 1on the square and then repeat. Obviously we would have to arrange themachine to run slow enough that there was time to write on the tape,but this does not affect the essence of the argument.We have to ask if the lack of dedicated input output was a significantfeature of Turing’s ideas. We would argue that the key computationalinnovation he was concerned with in [17] was the Universal Computer,the computer that could emulate any other computer, and thus performany computation. Special purpose computing machines were well knownprior to Turing[16,7,5,10,6]. What was new, or at least a recovery of Babbage[11], in [17] was the idea of the Universal Computer. It is theimplementation of this universality that has led to the subsequent successof the computer industry, since it allows a single design of machine to beapplied to an arbitrary number of tasks.

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