In computability theory, the Ackermann function, named after Wilhelm Ackermann, is one of the simplest and earliest-discovered examples of a total computable function that is not primitive recursive. All primitive recursive functions are total and computable, but the Ackermann function illustrates that not all total computable functions are primitive recursive.
After Ackermann's publication of his function (which had three nonnegative integer arguments), many authors modified it to suit various purposes, so that today "the Ackermann function" may refer to any of numerous variants of the original function. One common version, the two-argument Ackermann–Péter function, is defined as follows for nonnegative integers m and n:
Its value grows rapidly, even for small inputs. For example A(4,2) is an integer of 19,729 decimal digits.
In the late 1920s, the mathematicians Gabriel Sudan and Wilhelm Ackermann, students of David Hilbert, were studying the foundations of computation. Both Sudan and Ackermann are credited with discovering total computable functions (termed simply "recursive" in some references) that are not primitive recursive. Sudan published the lesser-known Sudan function, then shortly afterwards and independently, in 1928, Ackermann published his function . Ackermann's three-argument function, , is defined such that for p = 0, 1, 2, it reproduces the basic operations of addition, multiplication, and exponentiation as
and for p > 2 it extends these basic operations in a way that happens to be expressible in Knuth's up-arrow notation as
(Aside from its historic role as a total-computable-but-not-primitive-recursive function, Ackermann's original function is seen to extend the basic arithmetic operations beyond exponentiation, although not as seamlessly as do variants of Ackermann's function that are specifically designed for that purpose — such as Goodstein's hyperoperation sequence.)
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