Langton's ant

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Langton's ant is a two-dimensional Turing machine with a very simple set of rules but complicated emergent behavior. It was invented by Chris Langton in 1986 and runs on a square lattice of black and white cells.[1] The universality of Langton's ant was proven in 2000.[2] The idea has been generalized in several different ways, such as turmites which add more colors and more states.



Squares on a plane are colored variously either black or white. We arbitrarily identify one square as the "ant". The ant can travel in any of the four cardinal directions at each step it takes. The ant moves according to the rules below:

  • At a white square, turn 90° right, flip the color of the square, move forward one unit
  • At a black square, turn 90° left, flip the color of the square, move forward one unit

These simple rules lead to surprisingly complex behavior: after an initial period of apparently chaotic behavior, that lasts for about 10,000 steps (in the simplest case), the ant starts building a recurrent "highway" pattern of 104 steps that repeat indefinitely. All finite initial configurations tested eventually converge to the same repetitive pattern suggesting that the "highway" is an attractor of Langton's ant, but no one has been able to prove that this is true for all such initial configurations. It is only known that the ant's trajectory is always unbounded regardless of the initial configuration[3] - this is known as the Cohen-Kung theorem.[4]

Langton's ant can also be described as a cellular automaton, where most of the grid is colored black or white, and the "ant" square has one of eight different colors assigned to encode the combination of black/white state and the current direction of motion of the ant.


In 2000, Gajardo et al. showed a construction that calculates any boolean circuit using the trajectory of a single instance of Langton's ant.[2] Thus, it would be possible to simulate a Turing machine using the ant's trajectory for computation. This means that the ant is capable of universal computation.

Extension to multiple colors

Greg Turk and Jim Propp considered a simple extension to Langton's ant where instead of just two colors, more colors are used.[5] The colors are modified in a cyclic fashion. A simple naming scheme is used: for each of the successive colors, a letter 'L' or 'R' is used to indicate whether a left or right turn should be taken. Langton's ant has the name 'RL' in this naming scheme.

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