The Crucial Experiment
How Do Simple Programs Behave?
New directions in science have typically been initiated by certain central observations or experiments. And for the kind of science that I describe in this book these concerned the behavior of simple programs.
In our everyday experience with computers, the programs that we encounter are normally set up to perform very definite tasks. But the key idea that I had nearly twenty years ago—and that eventually led to the whole new kind of science in this book—was to ask what happens if one instead just looks at simple arbitrarily chosen programs, created without any specific task in mind. How do such programs typically behave?
The mathematical methods that have in the past dominated theoretical science do not help much with such a question. But with a computer it is straightforward to start doing experiments to investigate it. For all one need do is just set up a sequence of possible simple programs, and then run them and see how they behave.
Any program can at some level be thought of as consisting of a set of rules that specify what it should do at each step. There are many possible ways to set up these rules—and indeed we will study quite a few of them in the course of this book. But for now, I will consider a particular class of examples called cellular automata, that were the very first kinds of simple programs that I investigated in the early 1980s.