Chocoholic Subtraction – make an edible calculating Turing machine

Chocoholic Subtraction

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

A Turing machine can be used to do any computation, as long as you get its program right. Let’s create a program to do something simple to see how to do it. Our program will subtract two numbers.

A delicious uneven tower of broken chocolate bars with dark chocolate, white chocolate and milk chocolate.
Image by Enotovyj from Pixabay

The first thing we need to do is to choose a code for what the patterns of chocolates mean. To encode the two numbers we want to subtract we will use sequences of dark chocolates separated by milk chocolates, one sequence for each number. The more dark chocolates before the next milk chocolate the higher the number will be. For example if we started with the pattern laid out as below then it would mean we wanted to compute 4 – 3. Why? Because there is a group of four dark chocolates and then after some milk chocolates a group of three more.

M M M D D D D M M D D D M M M M …

(M = Milk chocolate, D = Dark chocolate)

Coloured flat circular lollipops with swirly spiral pattern
Image by Denis Doukhan from Pixabay

Here is a program that does the subtraction if you follow it when the pattern is laid out
like that. It works for any two numbers where the first is the bigger. The answer is given
by the final pattern. Try it yourself! Begin with a red lolly and follow the table below.
Start at the M on the very left of the pattern above.


Instructions table for Chocolate Turing Machine

From the above starting pattern our subtraction program would leave a new pattern:

M M M D M M M M M M M M M M M …

There is now just a single sequence of dark chocolates with only one chocolate in it.
The answer is 1!

Try lining up some chocolates and following the instructions yourself to see how it works.

This article was originally published on the CS4FN website and a copy can also be found on page 11 of Issue 14 of CS4FN, “Alan Turing – the genius who gave us the future”, which can be downloaded as a PDF, along with all our other free material, here:



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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

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