LETTERS TO THE EDITORS
Comings and Goings
To the Editors:
The article "Reverse Engineering" by Brian Hayes
(Computing Science, March-April) provided a clear
explanation of a very difficult topic. However, I have a
question regarding reversible logic.
A quick calculation gave me 40,320 reversible circuits with 3 inputs
and 3 outputs, with about 750 of them being their own inverses. My
question then is why Edward Fredkin and Tommaso Toffoli chose the
ones they did.
Among the many circuits that have useful properties, one is given by
the following table, using the same notation as in the article:
I have interchanged the input columns for clarity. If we consider
the input C as a control input, then when C = 0, P is the NAND
function of A and B, and when C = 1, P is the NOR function of A and
B. This circuit is reversible and its own inverse. Both the NAND and
NOR functions are computationally universal as defined in the
article. In addition, design with either NAND or NOR gates is simple
and is taught to computer engineers early in their educational careers.
To the Editors:
In "Reverse Engineering," Brian Hayes states that no
energy is lost in changing a bit from one to zero. This is a First
Law of Thermodynamics argument (conservation of energy). The Second
Law of Thermodynamics, on the other hand, does require that energy
His example of a car burning fuel is illustrative. He proposes that
you could "unburn the gasoline by bringing those molecules back
together in the right order." This also is a First Law
argument. The Second Law says that this is impossible. According to
the Second Law, no matter what information you have, or how hard you
try, you cannot collect all the molecules or recover all the energy
that was released. Inevitably some of the molecules and energy will
escape, so if you want to unburn the gasoline, you will have to
supply the missing molecules and energy.
Changing a bit from 1 to 0 also requires an input of energy. As you
change a 1 to a 0, it goes through an intermediate stage where it is
neither one nor zero. This represents an energy loss. According to
the Second Law, you cannot recover all this energy. In order to
complete the process of going from the intermediate stage to zero,
you will have to supply the missing energy.
Greater efficiency in design may greatly decrease the energy
consumption, but the Second Law says that it will never be reduced
Building a computer of millions of logic gates also involves the
Third Law of Thermodynamics (complexity). The Third Law, paraphrased
for this situation, would mean that millions of logic gates acting
together would require more energy than the same number of logic
gates acting separately.
Ann Arbor, MI
Mr. Hayes replies:
Why did Edward Fredkin and Tommaso Toffoli choose two specific gate
designs out of more than 40,000 possibilities? A historical question
like this one is best answered by someone who was there at the time,
so I asked Dr. Toffoli.
The Fredkin gate, he explained, was of special interest because it
is not only reversible but also "conservative," meaning
that the number of 0 bits and the number of 1 bits both remain
constant as signals pass through the system.
Dr. Fredkin had in mind a computer in which bits are represented by
physical particles, such as electrons or even billiard
balls—objects that cannot be created or annihilated at will.
The Fredkin gate, which either swaps two signals or passes them
through unchanged, automatically enforces such a conservation law.
The Toffoli gate became a focus of attention for a different reason.
Dr. Toffoli was looking for a way to embed the discrete logic of a
digital computer within a physical system having a continuum of
possible states, such as a mechanical linkage of levers or gears.
Certain distinguished positions of the components would represent
the Boolean values 0 and 1, but all the parts of the device would
have to be capable of passing through intermediate positions as well.
Dr. Toffoli showed that a device of this kind, built out of wheels
and crank-arms, could implement the logical function now known as
the Toffoli gate. For related reasons the same gate was later taken
up by Richard Feynman and others in studies of quantum computing.
However, as Dr. Kresch observes, many other reversible gates are
also of potential interest. A gate similar to the one he discusses
was important in proofs that reversible logic is a computational
universal (equivalent in power to a Turing machine).
To answer Mr. Levak, arguments over the thermodynamics of
computation have been going on for more than 40 years, and I suppose
they may well continue for another 40 years.
The situation that Mr. Levak discusses—changing the state of a
single bit—was analyzed in some detail by Rolf Landauer in
1961. Although the hardware commonly used for this purpose certainly
does dissipate energy, Landauer showed that the loss is not inevitable.
To state his result more precisely, he showed that the energy cost has
no minimum. Therefore, it can be made arbitrarily small.