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Notes for Signals and Systems

4.2 System Properties

The discussion of properties of systems will be a bit tentative at this point, in part because
the notion of a system is so general that it is difficult to include all the details, and in part
because the mathematical description of a system might presume certain properties of
allowable input signals. For example, the input signal to a running-integrator system must
be sufficiently well behaved that the integral is defined. We can be considerably more
precise when we consider specific classes of systems that admit particular types of
mathematical descriptions. In the interim the intent is mainly to establish some intuition
concerning properties of systems in general.

We proceed with a list of properties, phrased in the continuous-time case.

• Causal System A system is causal if the output signal value at any time t depends
only on input signal values for times no larger than t. Examples of causal systems are
y (t ) = 3 x(t − 2), y (t ) = ∫ x(τ ) dτ , y (t ) = x3 (t )
Examples of systems that are not causal are
t +1
y (t ) = x(2), y (t ) = 3 x(t + 2), y (t ) = ∫ x(τ ) dτ

• Memoryless System A system is memoryless if the output value at any time t

depends only on the input signal value at that same time, t. A memoryless system is
causal, though the reverse is untrue. Examples of memoryless systems are
y (t ) = 2 x(t ), y (t ) = x 2 (t ), y (t ) = te x (t )

• Time-Invariant System A system is time invariant if for every input signal x(t)
and corresponding output signal y(t) the following property holds. Given any constant,
to , the input signal x (t ) = x (t − to ) yields the output signal y (t ) = y (t − to ) . This is
sometimes called “shift invariance,” since any time shift of an input signal results in the
exact same shift of the output signal. Examples of time-invariant systems are
y (t ) = sin( x(t )), y (t ) = ∫ x(τ ) dτ , y (t ) = 3 x(t − 2)
Examples of systems that are not time invariant are
y (t ) = sin(t ) x(t ), y (t ) = ∫ τ x(τ ) dτ

To check if a system is time invariant requires application of the defining condition. For
example, for
y (t ) = ∫ τ x(τ ) dτ
we consider the input signal x (t ) = x(t − to ) , where to is any constant. The corresponding
response computation begins with
t t
y (t ) = ∫ τ x (τ ) dτ = ∫ τ x(τ − to ) dτ
−∞ −∞
To compare this to y (t − to ) , it is convenient to change the variable of integration to
σ = τ − to . This gives
t − to
y (t ) = ∫ (σ + to ) x(σ ) dσ
which is not the same as
t − to
y (t − to ) = ∫ τ x(τ ) dτ
Therefore the system is not time invariant.

• Linear System A system is linear if for every pair of input signals x1 (t ), x2 (t ) ,

with corresponding output signals y1 (t ), y2 (t ) , the following holds. For every constant b,
the response to the input signal x(t ) = bx1 (t ) + x2 (t ) is y (t ) = by1 (t ) + y2 (t ) . (This is more
concise than popular two-part definitions of linearity in the literature. Taking b = 1 yields
the additivity requirement that the response to x(t ) = x1 (t ) + x2 (t ) be y (t ) = y1 (t ) + y2 (t ) .
And taking x2 (t ) = x1 (t ) gives the homogeniety requirement that the response to
x(t ) = (b + 1) x1 (t ) should be y (t ) = (b + 1) y1 (t ) for any constant b. Examples of linear
systems are
y (t ) = et x(t ), y (t ) = 3x(t − 2), y (t ) = ∫ x(τ ) dτ
Examples of systems that are “nonlinear” are
y (t ) = ∫ x 2 (σ ) dσ , y (t ) = 1 + x(t ), y (t ) = cos( x(t ))
Remark It should be noted that for a linear system the response to the zero input is the
zero output signal. To see this, simply take x1 (t ) = x2 (t ) (so that y1 (t ) = y2 (t ) ) and
b = −1 in the definition of linearity.

• Stable System Recalling the definition of a bounded signal in Section1.6, a

system is stable (or bounded-input, bounded-output stable) if every bounded input signal
yields a bounded output signal. In detail, for any input signal x(t) such that |x(t)| < M for
all t, where M is a constant, there is aother constant P such that the corresponding output
signal satisfies |y(t)| < P for all t. Examples of stable systems are
x(t − 2)
y (t ) = e x (t ) , y (t ) = , y (t ) = sin(t ) x(t )
t2 +1
Examples of “unstable” systems are
y (t ) = et x(t ), y (t ) = ∫ x(τ ) dτ
• Invertible System A system is invertible if the input signal can be uniquely
determined from knowledge of the output signal. Examples of invertible systems are
y (t ) = x3 (t ), y (t ) = 3x(t − 2) + 4t
The thoughtful reader will be justifiably nervous about this definition. Invertibility of a
mathematical operation requires two features: the operation must be one-to-one and also
onto. Since we have not established a class of input signals that we consider for systems,
or a corresponding class of output signals, the issue of “onto” is left vague. And since we
have decided to ignore or reassign values of a signal at isolated points in time for reasons
of simplicity or convenience, even the issue of “one-to-one” is unsettled.

Determining invertibility of a given system can be quite difficult. Perhaps the easiest
situation is showing that a system is not invertible by exhibiting two legitimately
different input signals that yield the same output signal. For example, y (t ) = x 2 (t ) is not
invertible because constant input signals of x(t ) = 1 and x(t ) = −1 , for all t, yield
identical output signals. As another example, the system
y (t ) = x(t )
is not invertible since x (t ) = 1 + x(t ) yields the same output signal as x(t). As a final
example, in a benign setting the running-integrator system
y (t ) = ∫ x(τ ) dτ
is invertible by the fundamental theorem of calculus:
d t
∫ x(τ ) dτ = x(t )
dt −∞
But the fact remains that technicalities are required for this conclusion. If two input
signals differ only at isolated points in time, the output signals will be identical, and thus
the system is not invertible if we consider such input signals to be legitimately different.

All of these properties translate easily to discrete-time systems. Little more is required
than to replace parentheses by square brackets and t by n. But regardless of the time
domain, it is important to note that these are input-output properties of systems. In
particular, nothing is being stated about the internal workings of the system, everything is
stated in terms of input signals and corresponding output signals.

Finally it is worthwhile to think of how you would ascertain whether a given physical
system, for which you do not have a mathematical description, has each of the properties
we consider. That is, what input signals would you apply, what measurements of the
response would you take, and what use you would make of these measurements. The
demonstration linked below contains a selection of unknown systems and provides a test
bed for input-output experiments to check for system properties.

System Properties