Propagation Networks

My son Alexey Radul defended his PhD thesis on Propagation Networks on August 4. Here is the abstract.

I propose a shift in the foundations of computation. Modern programming systems are not expressive enough. The traditional image of a single computer that has global effects on a large memory is too restrictive. The propagation paradigm replaces this with computing by networks of local, independent, stateless machines interconnected with stateful storage cells. It offers great flexibility and expressive power, and has therefore been much studied, but has not yet been tamed for general-purpose computation. The novel insight that should finally permit computing with general-purpose propagation is that a cell should not be seen as storing a value, but as accumulating information about a value.

Various forms of the general idea of propagation have been used with great success for various special purposes; perhaps the most immediate example is constraint propagation in constraint satisfaction systems. This success is evidence both that traditional linear computation is not expressive enough, and that propagation is more expressive. These special-purpose systems, however, are all complex and all different, and neither compose well, nor interoperate well, nor generalize well. A foundational layer is missing.

I present the design of a general-purpose propagation system. I illustrate on several examples how the resulting prototype supports arbitrary computation; recovers the expressivity benefits that have been derived from special-purpose propagation systems in a single general-purpose framework, allowing them to compose and interoperate; and offers further expressive power beyond what we have known in the past.


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