Hardness of computing and approximating predicates and functions with leaderless population protocols

Amanda Belleville, David Doty, David Soloveichik

Population protocols are a distributed computing model appropriate for describing massive numbers of agents with limited computational power. A population protocol "has an initial leader" if every valid initial configuration contains a single agent in a special "leader" state that helps to coordinate the computation. Although the class of predicates and functions computable with probability 1 is the same whether or not there is an initial leader (semilinear functions and predicates), it is not known whether a leader is necessary for fast computation. Efficient population protocols are generally defined as those computing in polylogarithmic in $n$ (parallel) time. We consider leaderless population protocols, regarding the computation finished when a configuration is reached from which a different output is no longer reachable. In this setting we show that a wide class of functions and predicates computable by population protocols are not efficiently computable (they require at least linear time to stabilize on a correct answer), nor are some linear functions even efficiently approximable. For example, the widely studied parity, majority, and equality predicates cannot be computed in sublinear time. Moreover, it requires at least linear time for a population protocol even to approximate any linear function with a coefficient outside of $\mathbb{N}$: for sufficiently small $\gamma > 0$, the output of a sublinear time protocol can stabilize outside the interval $f(m) (1 \pm \gamma)$ on infinitely many inputs $m$. We also show that it requires linear time to exactly compute a wide range of semilinear functions (e.g., $f(m)=m$ if $m$ is even and $2m$ if $m$ is odd). Finally, we show that with a sufficiently large value of $\gamma$, a population protocol can approximate any linear $f$ with nonnegative rational coefficients, within approximation factor $\gamma$, in $O(\log n)$ time.

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