Chapter 3. The Simplest Computers

In the space of a few short years, we’ve become surrounded by computers. They used to be safely hidden away in military research centers and university laboratories, but now they’re everywhere: on our desks, in our pockets, under the hoods of our cars, implanted inside our bodies. As programmers, we work with sophisticated computing devices every day, but how well do we understand the way they work?

The power of modern computers comes with a lot of complexity. It’s difficult to understand every detail of a computer’s many subsystems, and more difficult still to understand how those subsystems interact to create the system as a whole. This complexity makes it impractical to reason directly about the capabilities and behavior of real computers, so it’s useful to have simplified models of computers that share interesting features with real machines but that can still be understood in their entirety.

In this chapter, we’ll strip back the idea of a computing machine to its barest essentials, see what it can be used for, and explore the limits of what such a simple computer can do.

Deterministic Finite Automata

Real computers typically have large amounts of volatile memory (RAM) and nonvolatile storage (hard drive or SSD), many input/output devices, and several processor cores capable of executing multiple instructions simultaneously. A finite state machine, also known as a finite automaton, is a drastically simplified model of a computer that throws out ...

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