Finite automata 1: Automatic sets

In one of my recent courses I had to learn about finite automata theory. The main purpose was to understand a generalisation of the celebrated Skolem-Mahler-Lech theorem in positive characteristic. Let \mathbb N_0 denote the set of non-negative integers and K be a field. For a linear recurrence f:\mathbb N_0\to K, define its zero set to be \{n\in\mathbb N_0 : f(n)=0\}. Then the Skolem-Mahler-Lech theorem states the following:

Theorem (Skolem-Mahler-Lech, 1953). The zero set of a linear recurrence f:\mathbb N_0\to\mathbb K, where K is a field of characteristic 0, is a finite union of arithmetic progressions along with a finite set.

Derksen in his 2005 paper was able to provide the correct analogue of this result in positive characteristic for the first time:

Theorem (Derksen, 2007). The zero set of a linear recurrence f:\mathbb N_0\to K, where K is a field of characteristic p>0, is a p-automatic set.

To understand this theorem we need to know about finite automata. In this and the next few posts I want to write about some interesting elementary results about automatic sets. Since my knowledge of computer science is epsilon(!), I will mostly touch on some very basic mathematical aspects.

A deterministic finite-state automaton (DFA) is a directed multigraph \Gamma satisfying certain properties. Firstly, its vertex-set Q (which we call the set of states) contains a special vertex (or state) q_0, called the initial state. We also have a finite non-empty set \Sigma of symbols. Each edge of \Gamma is labelled with a symbol from \Sigma. As a result, we have a transition function \delta:Q\times\Sigma\to Q such that if an edge from q_1 to q_2 is labelled with the symbol a\in\Sigma, then we write \delta(q_1,a)=q_2. Finally, we have a set F\subseteq Q (possibly empty) called the set of accepting or final states.

So \Gamma can be formally written as a quintuple (\Sigma,Q,q_0,\delta,F).

Let \Sigma^* be the free monoid on \Sigma. We can extend the transition function \delta to a map \delta:Q\times\Sigma^*\to Q by setting \delta(q_0,wa)=\delta(\delta(q_0,a),w) for all a\in\Sigma and w\in\Sigma^*. Thus, to \Gamma we can associate a language

\mathcal L_\Gamma:=\{w\in\Sigma^*:\delta(q_0,w)\in F\}\subseteq\Sigma^*.

We call such a language produced from a DFA a regular language. If w\in\mathcal L_\Gamma for some w\in\Sigma^*, we say that w is accepted by \Gamma.

Let \mathbb N denote the set of the positive integers, and let k>1 be an integer. Define \Sigma_k:=\{0,1,\dots,k-1\}. A subset S\subset\mathbb N is said to be k-automatic if there exists a DFA \Gamma=(\Sigma_k,Q,q_0,\delta,F) such that S is precisely the set of those j\in\mathbb N whose base-k representation, when regarded as a string in \Sigma^*, is accepted by \Gamma. If S\subseteq\mathbb N is k-automatic for some k>1, we say S is an automatic set.

For w=w_nw_{n-1}\cdots w_0\in\Sigma_k^* with each w_i\in\Sigma_k we define


In this case we also define |w|:=n+1 to be the length of w.

So S\subseteq\mathbb N is k-automatic precisely when S=\{[w]_k:w\in\mathcal L_\Gamma\} for some DFA \Gamma.

Note that we can set \delta(q,0) to be in Q\backslash F for every q\in Q (if F=Q, just create a new state). Thus we may without loss of generality assume that all our DFAs only accept words without leading zeros.

A basic result about regular languages is the pumping lemma:

Lemma (Pumping lemma). If \mathcal L is an infinite regular language, then there exist words a,b,c with |b|\ge 1 such that ab^nc\in\mathcal L for all n\ge 0.

Proof. Since \mathcal L is infinite, there are words of arbitrarily large length in \mathcal L. Let w=w_nw_{n-1}\cdots w_0\in\mathcal L be a word of sufficient length. Then there exist 0\le i<j\le n such that w_i\cdots w_0=w_j\cdots w_0\in\mathcal L. Taking a=w_n\cdots w_j, b=w_{j-1}\cdots w_i, c=w_{i-1}\cdots w_0 shows that ab^nc\in\mathcal L for all n\ge 0. Moreover, since i<j, it follows that |b|\ge 1. \square

In the following posts we are going to use the pumping lemma, together with other machinery, to derive some interesting results on the automaticity of certain sets.


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Filed under Algebra, Combinatorics, Number theory

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