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The crucial idea is to build up components from combinations of localized structures that the rule in a sense already produces. And if this works, then it is in effect a very economical solution. For it potentially allows one to get a large number of different kinds of components without ever needing to increase the complexity of the underlying rules at all.

But the problem with this approach is that it is typically very difficult to see how the various structures that happen to occur in a particular cellular automaton can be assembled into useful components.

And indeed in the case of rule 110 it took several years of work to develop the necessary ideas and tools. But finally it has turned out to be possible to show that the rule 110 cellular automaton is in fact universal.

It is truly remarkable that a system with such simple underlying rules should be able to perform what are in effect computations of arbitrary sophistication, but that is what its universality implies.

So how then does the proof of universality proceed?

The basic idea is to show that rule 110 can emulate any possible system in some class of systems where there is already known to be universality. And it turns out that a convenient such class of systems are the cyclic tag systems that we introduced on page 95.

Earlier in this chapter we saw that it is possible to construct a cyclic tag system that can emulate any given Turing machine. And since we know that at least some Turing machines are universal, this fact then establishes that universal cyclic tag systems are possible.

So if we can succeed in demonstrating that rule 110 can emulate any cyclic tag system, then we will have managed to prove that rule 110 is itself universal. The sequence of pictures on the facing page shows the beginnings of what is needed. The basic idea is to start from the usual representation of a cyclic tag system, and then progressively to change this representation so as to get closer and closer to what can actually be emulated directly by rule 110.

Picture (a) shows an example of the evolution of a cyclic tag system in the standard representation from pages 95 and 96. Picture (b) then shows another version of this same evolution, but now rearranged so that each element stays in the same position, rather than always shifting to the left at each step.

From Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [citation]