Coarse-graining of cellular automata, emergence, and the predictability of complex systems

Navot Israeli, Nigel Goldenfeld

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We study the predictability of emergent phenomena in complex systems. Using nearest-neighbor, one-dimensional cellular automata (CA) as an example, we show how to construct local coarse-grained descriptions of CA in all classes of Wolfram's classification. The resulting coarse-grained CA that we construct are capable of emulating the large-scale behavior of the original systems without accounting for small-scale details. Several CA that can be coarse-grained by this construction are known to be universal Turing machines; they can emulate any CA or other computing devices and are therefore undecidable. We thus show that because in practice one only seeks coarse-grained information, complex physical systems can be predictable and even decidable at some level of description. The renormalization group flows that we construct induce a hierarchy of CA rules. This hierarchy agrees well with apparent rule complexity and is therefore a good candidate for a complexity measure and a classification method. Finally we argue that the large-scale dynamics of CA can be very simple, at least when measured by the Kolmogorov complexity of the large-scale update rule, and moreover exhibits a novel scaling law. We show that because of this large-scale simplicity, the probability of finding a coarse-grained description of CA approaches unity as one goes to increasingly coarser scales. We interpret this large-scale simplicity as a pattern formation mechanism in which large-scale patterns are forced upon the system by the simplicity of the rules that govern the large-scale dynamics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number026203
JournalPhysical Review E - Statistical, Nonlinear, and Soft Matter Physics
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistical and Nonlinear Physics
  • Statistics and Probability
  • Condensed Matter Physics


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