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The World of Simple Programs

The Search for General Features

At the beginning of the last chapter we asked the basic question of what simple programs typically do. And as a first step towards answering this question we looked at several specific examples of a class of programs known as cellular automata.

The basic types of behavior that we found are illustrated in the pictures on the next page. In the first of these there is pure repetition, and a very simple pattern is formed. In the second, there are many intricate details, but at an overall level there is still a very regular nested structure that emerges.

In the third picture, however, one no longer sees such regularity, and instead there is behavior that seems in many respects random. And finally in the fourth picture there is what appears to be still more complex behavior—with elaborate localized structures being generated that interact in complex ways.

At the outset there was no indication that simple programs could ever produce behavior so diverse and often complex. But having now seen these examples, the question becomes how typical they are. Is it only cellular automata with very specific underlying rules that produce such behavior? Or is it in fact common in all sorts of simple programs?

My purpose in this chapter is to answer this question by looking at a wide range of different kinds of programs. And in a sense my

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