This month, a bunch of ‘logic hackers’ have been seeking to determine the precise boundary between the knowable and the unknowable. The challenge has been around for a long time. But only now have people taken it up with the kind of world-wide teamwork that the internet enables.

A **Turing machine** is a simple model of a computer. Imagine a machine that has some finite number of states, say N states. It’s attached to a tape, an infinitely long tape with lots of squares, with either a 0 or 1 written on each square. At each step the machine reads the number where it is. Then, based on its state and what it reads, it either *halts*, or it writes a number, changes to a new state, and moves either left or right.

The tape starts out with only 0’s on it. The machine starts in a particular ‘start’ state. It halts if it winds up in a special ‘halt’ state.

The **Busy Beaver Game** is to find the Turing machine with N states that runs as long as possible and then halts.

The number **BB(N)** is the number of steps that the winning machine takes before it halts.

In 1961, Tibor Radó introduced the Busy Beaver Game and proved that the sequence BB(N) is uncomputable. It grows faster than any computable function!

A few values of BB(N) can be computed, but there’s no way to figure out all of them.

As we increase N, the number of Turing machines we need to check increases faster than exponentially: it’s

Of course, many could be ruled out as potential winners by simple arguments. But the real problem is this: it becomes ever more complicated to determine which Turing machines with N states never halt, and which merely take a huge time to halt.

Indeed, matter what axiom system you use for math, as long as it has finitely many axioms and is consistent, you can never use it to correctly determine BB(N) for more than some finite number of cases.

So what do people know about BB(N)?

For starters, BB(0) = 0. At this point I should admit that people don’t count the halt state as one of our N states. This is just a convention. So, when we consider BB(0), we’re considering machines that only have a halt state. They instantly halt.

Next, BB(1) = 1.

Next, BB(2) = 6.

Next, BB(3) = 21. This was proved in 1965 by Tibor Radó and Shen Lin.

Next, BB(4) = 107. This was proved in 1983 by Allan Brady.

Next, BB(5). *Nobody knows what BB(5) equals!*

The current 5-state busy beaver champion was discovered by Heiner Marxen and Jürgen Buntrock in 1989. It takes 47,176,870 steps before it halts. So, we know

People have looked at all the other 5-state Turing machines to see if any does better. But there are 43 machines that do very complicated things that nobody understands. It’s believed they never halt, but nobody has been able to prove this yet.

We may have hit the wall of ignorance here… but we *don’t know*.

That’s the spooky thing: the precise boundary between the knowable and the unknowable is unknown. It may even be unknowable… but I’m not sure we know that.

Next, BB(6). In 1996, Marxen and Buntrock showed it’s at least 8,690,333,381,690,951. In June 2010, Pavel Kropitz proved that

You may wonder how he proved this. Simple! He found a 6-state machine that runs for

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steps and then halts!

Of course, I’m just kidding when I say this was simple. The machine is easy enough to describe, but proving it takes exactly this long to run takes real work! You can read about such proofs here:

• Pascal Michel, The Busy Beaver Competition: a historical survey.

I don’t understand them very well. All I can say at this point is that many of the record-holding machines known so far are similar to the famous Collatz conjecture. The idea there is that you can start with any positive integer and keep doing two things:

• if it’s even, divide it by 2;

• if it’s odd, triple it and add 1.

The conjecture is that this process will always eventually reach the number 1. Here’s a graph of how many steps it takes, as a function of the number you start with:

Nice pattern! But this image shows how it works for numbers up to 10 million, and you’ll see it doesn’t usually take very long for them to reach 1. Usually less than 600 steps is enough!

So, to get a Turing machine that takes a long time to halt, you have to take this kind of behavior and make it much more long and drawn-out. Conversely, to analyze one of the potential winners of the Busy Beaver Game, people must take that long and drawn-out behavior and figure out a way to predict much more quickly when it will halt.

Next, BB(7). In 2014, someone who goes by the name Wythagoras showed that

It’s fun to prove lower bounds on BB(N). For example, in 1964 Milton Green constructed a sequence of Turing machines that implies

Here I’m using Knuth’s up-arrow notation, which is a recursively defined generalization of exponentiation, so for example

where there are threes in that tower.

But it’s also fun to seek the smallest N for which we can prove BB(N) is unknowable! And that’s what people are making lots of progress on right now.

Sometime in April 2016, Adam Yedidia and Scott Aaronson showed that BB(7910) cannot be determined using the widely accepted axioms for math called ZFC: that is, Zermelo—Fraenkel set theory together with the axiom of choice. It’s a great story, and you can read it here:

• Scott Aaronson, The 8000th Busy Beaver number eludes ZF set theory: new paper by Adam Yedidia and me, *Shtetl-Optimized*, 3 May 2016.

• Adam Yedidia and Scott Aaronson, A relatively small Turing machine whose behavior is independent of set theory, 13 May 2016.

Briefly, Yedidia created a new programming language, called Laconic, which lets you write programs that compile down to small Turing machines. They took an arithmetic statement created by Harvey Friedman that’s equivalent to the consistency of the usual axioms of ZFC together with a large cardinal axiom called the ‘stationary Ramsey property’, or SRP. And they created a Turing machine with 7910 states that seeks a proof of this arithmetic statement using the axioms of ZFC.

Since ZFC can’t prove its own consistency, much less its consistency when supplemented with SRP, their machine will only halt if ZFC+SRP is inconsistent.

Since most set theorists believe ZFC+SRP is consistent, this machine probably doesn’t halt. But we can’t prove this using ZFC.

In short: *if the usual axioms of set theory are consistent, we can never use them to determine the value of BB(7910)*.

The basic idea is nothing new: what’s new is the explicit and rather low value of the number 7910. Poetically speaking, we know the unknowable starts here… if not sooner.

However, this discovery set off a wave of improvements! On the Metamath newsgroup, Mario Carneiro and others started ‘logic hacking’, looking for smaller and smaller Turing machines that would only halt if ZF—that is, Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory, without the axiom of choice—is inconsistent.

By just May 15th, Stefan O’Rear seems to have brought the number down to 1919. He found a Turing machine with just 1919 states that searches for an inconsistency in the ZF axioms. Interestingly, this turned out to work better than using Harvey Friedman’s clever trick.

Thus, if O’Rear’s work is correct, we can only determine BB(1919) if we can determine whether ZF set theory is consistent. However, we cannot do this using ZF set theory—unless we find an inconsistency in ZF set theory.

For details, see:

• Stefan O’Rear, A Turing machine Metamath verifier, 15 May 2016.

I haven’t checked his work, but it’s available on GitHub.

What’s the point of all this? At present, it’s mainly just a game. However, it should have some interesting implications. It should, for example, help us better locate the ‘complexity barrier’.

I explained that idea here:

• John Baez, The complexity barrier, *Azimuth*, 28 October 2011.

Briefly, while there’s no limit on how much information a string of bits—or any finite structure—can have, there’s a limit on how much information we can *prove* it has!

This amount of information is pretty low, perhaps a few kilobytes. And I believe the new work on logic hacking can be used to estimate it more accurately!