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We say that a language $L$ is prefix-free if for every word $s\in L$ there does not exist a nonempty string $w\in\Sigma^*$ such that $sw\in L$ (i.e. no word in the language is a prefix of some other word in the language). For any given language there is a smallest prefix-free sub-language constructed by finding any two words $s,t\in L$ such that $s$ is a prefix of $t$, and removing $t$ from $L$.

Question: Is there a computable language such that its smallest prefix-free sub-language is not computable?


My attempt: I started trying to think of computable languages where "deciding" whether, for any string that is accepted, there exists a longer string which is also accepted, takes infinite time to check. None of the simple examples that come to mind work: If you take for instance any language which accepts finitely many strings, then it and its prefix-free sublanguage are computable. If you take the language of strings that ends in a 1, it and its sublanguage are computable because every string you could accept is a prefix to another accepting string so the sublanguage would be empty.

After trying to come up with simple examples I started thinking maybe I need to work in reverse, and think of a noncomputable language which is the prefix-free sublanguage of a computable language. The obvious language to pick here is the language of machine-input pairs such that the given machine halts on the given input. But I don't see how I could construe this as the prefix-free sublanguage of some other larger computable language. And I've thought a little about a few other noncomputable languages but that hasn't helped at all.

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No, since the change from a language to its smallest prefix-free sub-language is computable.

Suppose language $L$ is computable. That is, we can list all words in $L$ in nondecreasing length. Scanning the list, we will keep only the words that are not an expansion of any word that have been scanned. The list of words left, $P$, is the smallest prefix-free sub-language of $L$. Note that they are also in nondecreasing length. So $P$ is also computable.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the answer should be that it is possible. Perhaps I've made a mistake in translation but I am told this related fact: Let $f:\Sigma^*\to \{0,1\}$ be any function and define $Prefree(f)$ to be the function $Prefree(f)(x) = 1$ if and only if $f(x)=1$ and there is no $w\in\Sigma^*$ such that $f(xw)=1$. I am told that there is a computable function $f$ such that $Prefree(f)$ is not computable. I can't come up with an example like that either. I believe this is basically a re-characterization of the same problem but perhaps I'm mistaken. $\endgroup$
    – Addem
    Oct 24 '21 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Addem: That problem goes in the other direction - it requires you to determine whether a string is a prefix of any other strings in the language, while determining the smallest prefix-free sub-language of a language only requires determining whether a string has any prefixes in the language. $\endgroup$ Oct 25 '21 at 5:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Addem: That "related fact" is not the same as the problem in your question. Suppose that L contains both s and t, where s is a prefix of t. In your question, the sublanguage would include s but not t; but in that related fact, the sublanguage would include t but not s. This matters because any given string has only finitely many prefixes, but is a prefix of infinitely many other strings; so given t you can certainly check if it has some prefix s in L, but given s you can't necessarily check if it's a prefix of some t in L. $\endgroup$
    – ruakh
    Oct 25 '21 at 5:27

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