What Does it Mean to Say a Physical System is Implements a Computation?

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18 Citations (Scopus)


When we are concerned with the logical form of a computation and its formal properties, then it can be theoretically described in terms of mathematical and logical functions and relations between abstract entities. However, actual computation is realised by some physical process, and the latter is of course subject to physical laws and the laws of thermodynamics in particular. An issue that has been the subject of much controversy is that of whether or not there are any systematic connections between the logical properties of computations considered abstractly and the thermodynamical properties of their concrete physical realizations. Landauer [R. Landauer, Irreversibility and heat generation in the computing process, IBM Journal of Research and Development 5 (1961) 183–191. Reprinted in Leff and Rex (1990)] proposed such a general connection, known as Landauer’s Principle. To resolve this matter an analysis of the notion of the implementation of a computation by a physical system is clearly required. Another issue that calls for an analysis of implementation is that of realism about computation. The account of implementation presented here is based on the notion of an L-machine. This is a hybrid physical-logical entity that combines a physical device, a specification of which physical states of that device correspond to various logical states, and an evolution of that device which corresponds to the logical transformation L. The most general form of Landauer’s Principle can be precisely stated in terms of L-machines, namely that the logical irreversibility of L implies the thermodynamic irreversibility of every corresponding L-machine.
Translated title of the contributionWhat Does it Mean to Say a Physical System is Implements a Computation?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)376 - 383
Number of pages8
JournalTheoretical Computer Science
Issue number4-5
Early online date17 Feb 2009
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2009

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Science and Philosophy
  • Centre_for_science_and_philosophy


  • implementation
  • realism about computation
  • Landauer's Principle
  • L-machine


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