Undergraduate scoops $25k prize

A 20-year-old undergraduate from Birmingham, UK has scooped a $25k prize for finding the form of the simplest ‘universal computer’ possible.

Given enough time to perform the processing, universal computers can emulate any other computer. This may seem obvious now, but at the dawn of computing scientists weren’t certain whether different machines would be necessary for different types of calculations.

Alan Turing proved that this wasn’t the case, but until now scientists haven’t known the form of the simplest universal computer. In his book A New Kind of Science, Stephen Wolfram proved that a machine that processes information based on an alphabet of just five symbols or ‘colours’, and that can exist in just two states, is a universal computer.

However, Wolfram hypothesised that a machine with just two states and three colours could be universal, and this May he established a competition to prove it. Now Alex Smith, a computer science undergraduate at Birmingham University, has produced this proof, published in the journal Complex Systems, to win the prize.

‘I had no idea how long it would take for the prize to be won,’ said Stephen Wolfram. ‘It could have taken a year, a decade, or a century. I'm thrilled it was so quick. It's an impressive piece of work.’

It’s possible that the research could be important when building computers operating at the molecular scale.

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