## Maximally reliable Markov chains under energy constraints

Neural Computation 21: 1863-912.

Signal to noise ratios in physical systems can be signi cantly
degraded if the output of a system is highly variable. Biological
processes for which highly stereotyped signal generation is a
necessary feature appear to have reduced their signal variabilities by
employing multiple processing steps. To better understand why this
multi-step cascade structure might be desirable, we prove that the
reliability of a signal generated by a multi-state system with no
memory (i.e. a Markov chain) is maximal if and only if the system
topology is such that the process steps irreversibly through each
state, with transition rates chosen such that an equal fraction of the
total signal is generated in each state. Furthermore, our result
indicates that by increasing the number of states, it is possible to
arbitrarily increase the reliability of the system. In a physical
system, however, there is an energy cost associated with maintaining
irreversible transitions, and this cost increases with the number of
such transitions (i.e. the number of states). Thus an infinite length
chain, which would be perfectly reliable, is infeasible. To model the
e ects of energy demands on the maximally reliable solution, we
numerically optimize the topology under two distinct energy functions
that penalize either irreversible transitions or incommunicability
between states respectively. In both cases, the solutions are
essentially irreversible linear chains, but with upper bounds on the
number of states set by the amount of available energy. We therefore
conclude that a physical system for which signal reliability is
important should employ a linear architecture with the number of
states (and thus the reliability) determined by the intrinsic energy
constraints of the system.

*NOTE: After publication of this paper, David Aldous graciously
pointed out that our basic inequality on the reliability of a Markov
chain has in fact been known for a while. See Aldous, D. and Shepp,
L. (1987), "The least variable phase type distribution is Erlang,"
Stochastic Models, Volume 3, pages 467 - 473, for a proof, or more
recently the nice review paper by Arnold (2007), "Majorization: Here, There and
Everywhere," Statistical Science, Vol. 22, No. 3, 407-413, for a
discussion of a number of related results.

Reprint | Liam
Paninski's research page