Interactive notes on finitestate machine
· 6 min read
As I am selfstudying theory of computation, specifically the theory of finite automata right now, I am making some notes on the topic to better reinforce what I have learnt, with interactive demonstrations of the automata.
Contents
A word on language
Mirroring the daily meaning of the word, in formal language theory, an alphabet $\Sigma$ is a finite^{1} set of characters. A string over the alphabet $\Sigma$ is a tuple $x=(a_1,a_2,\ldots,a_k)$ in $\Sigma^k$ in which we write simply as $x=a_1a_2\cdots a_k$. A string $x$ in $\Sigma^k$ has length $k$, denoted $x=k$. The set of all strings of all lengths over the alphabet $\Sigma$ is the Kleene closure of $\Sigma$ and denoted $\Sigma^*$; symbolically,
$\Sigma^* = \bigcup_{k = 0}^\infty \Sigma^k.$We define $\Sigma^0=\{\varepsilon\}$, where $\varepsilon$ is the empty string, the only string having zero length. A language over $\Sigma$ is a subset $L$ of $\Sigma^*$. As an example of a frequentlyseen language, the set of all binary strings is $\{0,1\}^* = \{\varepsilon, 0, 1, 00, 01, \ldots\}$.
Given strings $x=a_1a_2\cdots a_k$ and $y=b_1b_2\cdots b_l$ over $\Sigma$, the concatenation of $x$ and $y$, denoted by $xy$ or $x\cdot y$, is the string produced by appending $y$ to $x$:
$xy = x\cdot y = a_1a_2\cdots a_kb_1b_2\cdots b_l.$Note that $\varepsilon x = x\varepsilon = x$ for any string $x$.
type Letter = string  symbol;
type Str<L extends Letter> = Iterable<L>;
Recall that an equivalence relation is a binary relation that is reflexive, symmetric, and transitive. Of particular importance are equivalence relations on $\Sigma^*$, specifically rightinvariant ones: an equivalence relation $\equiv$ on $\Sigma^*$ is rightinvariant if
$x\equiv y$ implies $xz\equiv yz$ for all $z\in\Sigma^*$.
Finitestate machine
A finitestate machine (FSM)^{2} $M$ is specified through five elements, as follows:
$M = (Q, \Sigma, \delta, q_0, F)$where
 $Q$ is the set of $M$‘s states,
 $\Sigma$ is $M$‘s input alphabet,
 $\delta\colon Q\times \Sigma\to Q$ is $M$‘s transition function,
 $q_0\in Q$ is $M$‘s initial state,
 $F\subset Q$ is the set of $M$‘s final states.
Mechanistically, an FSM $M$ can be thought of as a machine that repeatedly receives a character from an alphabet $\Sigma$ and changes its internal status accordingly. Though the above specification does not mention output, we can regard $M$ as being able to output YES or NO, depending on whether its state is one of the final states.
Naturally, we can extend the transition function to accept an arbitrary string over $\Sigma$ in an inductive manner: for $x\in\Sigma^*$ and $a\in\Sigma$, we define
$\delta^*(q, xa) = \delta(\delta(q, x), a).$The function $\delta^*$ can receive as input any (nonempty) string over $\Sigma$. We also let $\delta^*(q, \varepsilon) = q$—by reading no input, the machine does not change its state. From here on, we overload $\delta$ to mean $\delta^*$ and assume the transition function $\delta$ can take strings of arbitrary lengths as input, i.e., $\delta\colon Q\times\Sigma^*\to Q$.
The FSM $M$ is said to accept a string $x$ if $\delta(q_0, x) \in F$. In other words, the machine “output” YES when it accepts the input string and NO otherwise. The set of strings that $M$ accepts is the language accepted or recognized by $M$, denoted by $L(M)$.
type State = string  symbol;
class FSM<S extends State, L extends Letter> {
state: S;
initialState: S;
transition: (input: Str<L>) => void;
finalStates: Set<S>;
constructor(initialState: S, finalStates: Set<S>, t: (s: S, l: L) => S) {
this.state = initialState;
this.initialState = initialState;
this.finalStates = finalStates;
this.transition = (input: Str<L>) => {
for (const l of input) {
this.state = t(this.state, l);
}
};
}
}
Labeled digraph
It is natural to visualize an FSM $M$ as a labeled directed graph: the vertices are the states and the edges are the state transitions. For a starting state $q\in Q$ and each letter $\sigma\in\Sigma$, there is an edge labeled $\sigma$ going from $q$ to $\delta(q, \sigma)$.
Let us represent a simple FSM this way. A very common use case for FSMs is matching and finding pattern in text. Say, we want to know if an input string is a math equation, where in our simplistic example, a math equation is a string that contains a single ”=” sign that is not at the beginning or the end of the string. Following the mechanistic interpretation above, we might solve this problem by feeding the characters of the string into an FSM, letting it run (i.e., change state), and then getting the result according to whether the last state is a final state. Then, we might design an FSM $M_E$ as follows:^{3}
Here, the label “not =” corresponds to any character that is not the equal sign, and the label “all” matches every character. The intial state “A” has a dangling arrow pointing to it, the final state “E” is enclosed in a double circle, and the current active state is bolded green. You can try running the FSM with your own input to see it in action.
Regular languages
A regular language is one that is accepted by some FSM. We shall denote the collection of regular languages over an alphabet $\Sigma$ by $\mcR_\Sigma$. Two trivial examples of regular languages are the empty language $\varnothing$ and the language $\Sigma$ consisting of every string.
In the example above, the set of all strings that are equations is a regular language. The set of all strings that are not equations is also a regular language. Indeed, we can construct an FSM $M_{\overline{E}}$ that accepts $\overline{E}$ from $M_E$ by changing the set of final states to its complement $\overline{F}$ (the resulting FSM has every states except “E” as a final state). This “keep everything but change one part” argument generalizes to other types of operation and can be used to show that $\mcR_\Sigma$ is closed under union, intersection, and complementation.^{4}
Perhaps more interestingly, the regular languages are closed under concatenation as well. For two languages $L$ and $H$, the concatenation $LH$ is the set of all strings obtained by concatenate a string from $L$ with a string from $H$:
$LH = \{xy\colon x\in L, y\in H\}.$Proof. Let $M_L = (Q_L, \Sigma, \delta_L, q_{0L}, F_L)$ and $M_H = (Q_H, \Sigma, \delta_H, q_{0H}, F_H)$ be FSMs accepting $L$ and $H$, respectively. We construct an FSM $M_{LH}$ accepting $LH$ as follows:
Footnotes

Technically, a language can be defined on an arbitrary alphabet, but for most practical purposes, finite alphabet works without problems.

There are many names, such as finite automaton, for the concept with various meanings. Here, “finitestate machine” follows exactly the given definition.

For a more interactive and featurerich visualization, see this wonderful FSM Simulator by Ivan Zuzak.