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The Abstract Definitive Machine

Lecture 7: The Abstract Definitive Machine

1: Background and Motivation

The Abstract Definitive Machine (ADM) was designed by Beynon, Slade and Yung in 1988. It was developed in collaboration with Mark Norris at British Telecom as part of an investigation into animation tools based on LSD. The first implementation was due to Slade. The ideas described are derived from Slade's MSc thesis and related papers.

The ADM is significant in our research as a step towards a general-purpose definitive programming model. The practical programming techniques we use in supporting definitive scripts don't give us much insight into what such a model should be, whilst an agent-oriented LSD account is - in itself - not to be regarded as an operational model. In this section, we briefly explore some of the issues, then describe the current status of the ADM design and implementation. We shall also consider the appropriate direction for future development of the ADM concept.

The Practical Programming Perspective:

The computational model of eden is in some ways unsatisfactory. It includes features such as actions that describe state by side-effect that can be easily abused. There is no built-in means to discipline actions, so that the sequence in which actions are executed can become disorderly. Many of the 'advanced' features of EDEN are intended to address the need to manage state in ways that more closely reflect the clustering of observables in primitive agents (e.g. pointers, execute(), forget(), backticks, virtual agents), SCOUT demonstrates that definitive specification of the screen is the most appropriate complement for definitive representations of internal state. Since hardware doesn't operate in a definitive way - at any rate at the appropriate level of abstraction - we need to use implementation techniques such as eden provides, but we'd like to conceive them in a more elegant and formally satisfactory framework. The ADM was designed as a computational model that is based upon definitive representations of state. One motivation behind its design is thus:

Is there a good abstract model for "proper use" of eden?

[Clearly there are many possible ways to abuse eden, whereby procedures and rules displace any principled use of definitions to describe state.]

The Animation Perspective:

An independent motivation for the ADM comes from concurrent systems modelling. The ADM was primarily developed as a tool for animation of LSD specifications. There are two principal themes behind animation with definitive representations of state:

1) the representation of concurrent action by parallel redefinition

2) the use of scripts to reflect context dependence of agent actions.

The design and simulation activities illustrated in the VCCS show the potential for rich forms of interaction, where the modeller - acting in the role of a system designer - can observe an intelligible state-based representation of a concurrent system, and is empowered to intervene and redirect computation to an unusual degree. The ADM is a first step towards describing an abstract computational model with these characteristics.

2: The ADM state-transition model

The ADM can be viewed as a distinctive kind of object/agent-oriented model of computation. A program for the ADM is framed with reference to entities that in some respects resemble objects in that they comprise a cluster of observables (cf. variables) and an associated set of actions (cf. methods). What is distinctive about the ADM is that there may be dependencies between observables, one entity can act directly to change observables associated with another, the execution state is recorded using a definitive script, and the semantics of this script is experientially rather than formally mediated.

An ADM program is a set of abstractly defined entities and on execution a set of entities is instantiated. Each entity comprises a set of definitions and a set of actions. Each action is a guarded sequence of primitive operations, viz: the redefinition of a observable or the creation or deletion of an entity instance. During execution of the ADM program, the definitions associated with currently instantiated entities are stored in the definition store D. The actions associated with an entity are stored in the action store A. In each machine cycle, the computational state as defined by the definition store D is modified according to the contents of the action store A. Figure 1 illustrates the relationship between the program entities, the definition store and the action store during the execution of an ADM program.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Definition and action stores in the ADM

With its application in contexts of a particular kind (where View 3 agents and reliable behaviours are the norm), it is convenient to discuss the ADM in terminology that suggests a conventional abstract machine model - beware though that later sections will qualify this interpretation and indicate where it can be fundamentally misleading.

It is also helpful at this point to review the ADM design from the perspectives mentioned in section 1:

  • where the abstract description of sound eden programming is concerned, it is clear that entities are well-suited to the abstract representation of definitive notation implementation in eden. For instance, the definition of a DoNaLD point leads to the creation of a definition in eden together with an associated procedural eden action that is responsible for maintaining the visualisation of the point. This indicates how geometric entities in DoNaLD might correspond to ADM entities in modelling the eden implementation of DoNaLD.
  • where the animation of an LSD account is concerned, it is clear that the concept of entity is in form quite similar to an LSD agent description. The fundamental difference is that the privileges of an LSD agent do not bear a direct computational interpretation; they represent potential actions rather than obligations to act.

Note that in the ADM execution the control status is modified dynamically in a very subtle manner as entities are created and deleted. In this respect, the control paradigm for the ADM resembles other event-driven agent-oriented frameworks for modelling. The ADM also has a most distinctive and significant control feature that is particularly relevant to its use as a tool for open-ended modelling and simulation: the possibility for direct intervention by the programmer, in the role of superagent, during the execution of a program (as will be discussed later).

The definitions and actions in the ADM also differ from their counterparts in EDEN. In the ADM, definitions and actions pass in and out of existence as entities are instantiated and deleted, whilst EDEN definitions and actions are typically persistent (though the forget() procedure does make some provision for eliminating them).

3: Characteristics of the ADM as a computational model

The ADM machine cycle:

Each ADM machine cycle follows the pattern:

  • consult the values in the context of D of the guards of actions in A
  • perform in parallel all actions in A with true guards

Note that each action is a sequence of primitive operations. It is assumed that the way in which primitive operations synchronise is not significant. Instances of parallel redefinition of the same variable, parallel definition that leads to cyclicity, or redefinitions that involve the evaluation of variables that are themselves to be redefined in a parallel action (etc) are detected as interference between actions. The default operation of the machine in the presence of interference is to suspend the computation.

Programming the ADM:

What are appropriate ways to program the ADM?

The ADM represents an abstract state-based programming paradigm with parallelism. An example of a simple program that can be expressed using the ADM is the implementation of a systolic array (cf [1]). Such an implementation describes the states of the computation in a most appropriate way, expressing the synchronisation between operations in the array components, but not eliminating state as in a pure data flow model.

As yet, the abstract programming potential of the ADM has been little explored. There are several possible reasons for this, including the limitations of the current implementations. The example illustrates some of the relevant issues.

The primary use of the ADM has been in connection with animation from LSD specifications. Though the ADM was originally developed to complement LSD, it is also possible to regard the use of LSD as a software development method for the ADM.

The ADM in use:

Execution in the ADM has many of the abstract characteristics we have already illustrated e.g. in the VCCS. The ADM programmer can be regarded as an agent with exceptional privileges that include the power to introduce an arbitrary action in any machine cycle. (In this role, the programmer resembles the debugger of a conventional program in an environment that allows variables to be freely inspected and reassigned.) This is one way in which problems of interference can be resolved - through special action on the part of the programmer to arbitrate where there is ambiguity about which actions should be selected for execution.

The scope for automatic detection of interference and singular conditions in execution is a powerful feature that can be exploited in several ways. In principle, it creates an environment for simulation in which the designer has unusual scope to intervene and redirect during execution. Call-by-need input is one of the mechanisms that can be naturally expressed in the ADM framework: when an undefined observable is encountered, the designer can be prompted to enter a suitable definition of its value.

Current Status and Limitations of ADM Design and Implementation:

The basic ADM, as implemented by Slade [3], has only integer data types. This is very limiting where animation is concerned. The addition of a textual output mechanism provides a partial solution to this problem. An action g -> A can be given a textual annotation T(...) via the construct:

g {T(...)} -> A

- this has the effect of printing the string T(...) whenever the action is executed. [Here (...) is an informal notation for a parameter list, consisting of references to current variables in D.]

By using the textual output mechanism we can construct a commentary on a simulation - as illustrated by the Railway Station Animation. This is not a particularly satisfactory form of output, as it represents state through the accumulation of procedural actions rather than in a definitive style.

In principle, the ADM model should admit definitions rich enough to allow the visualisation to be expressed using definitive notations such as SCOUT and DoNaLD. There has been some work towards achieving this end through building EDEN translators for the ADM, but ideally it should be possible run the ADM interactively in such a way that program development can occur seamlessly without the need for revision and retranslation.

The design of the ADM, as described above, raises other fundamental concerns. The mechanisms by which entities are created and destroyed are procedural rather than definitive in nature: this is a limitation with important practical implications. For instance, we may wish to link the presence of entities to some condition of the system in an indivisible fashion. The definitions of the entities that make up the ADM program might also be more appropriately specified using definitive methods. For instance, we might wish to specify that the geometric symbol representing a particular geographic feature on a map changes according to the resolution. There are often ways to fudge these issues using existing tools, but there a good reasons to suppose that better abstractions have to be sought in these areas.


1. W M Beynon, M D Slade, Y W Yung Parallel Computation in Definitive Models CONPAR 88

2. W M Beynon Parallelism in a definitive programmig framework Parallel Computing 89

3. M D Slade Parallel Definitive Programming MSc thesis, Warwick Univ 1989