The Covering Problem: A Unified Approach for Investigating the Expressive Power of Logics

Authors Thomas Place, Marc Zeitoun

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Thomas Place
Marc Zeitoun

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Thomas Place and Marc Zeitoun. The Covering Problem: A Unified Approach for Investigating the Expressive Power of Logics. In 41st International Symposium on Mathematical Foundations of Computer Science (MFCS 2016). Leibniz International Proceedings in Informatics (LIPIcs), Volume 58, pp. 77:1-77:15, Schloss Dagstuhl – Leibniz-Zentrum für Informatik (2016)


An important endeavor in computer science is to precisely understand the expressive power of logical formalisms over discrete structures, such as words. Naturally, "understanding" is not a mathematical notion. Therefore, this investigation requires a concrete objective to capture such a notion. In the literature, the standard choice for this objective is the membership problem, whose aim is to find a procedure deciding whether an input regular language can be defined in the logic under study. This approach was cemented as the "right" one by the seminal work of Schuetzenberger, McNaughton and Papert on first-order logic and has been in use since then. However, membership questions are hard: for several important fragments, researchers have failed in this endeavor despite decades of investigation. In view of recent results on one of the most famous open questions, namely the quantifier alternation hierarchy of first-order logic, an explanation may be that membership is too restrictive as a setting. These new results were indeed obtained by considering more general problems than membership, taking advantage of the increased flexibility of the enriched mathematical setting. This opens a promising avenue of research and efforts have been devoted at identifying and solving such problems for natural fragments. However, until now, these problems have been ad hoc, most fragments relying on a specific one. A unique new problem replacing membership as the right one is still missing. The main contribution of this paper is a suitable candidate to play this role: the Covering Problem. We motivate this problem with three arguments. First, it admits an elementary set theoretic formulation, similar to membership. Second, we are able to reexplain or generalize all known results with this problem. Third, we develop a mathematical framework as well as a methodology tailored to the investigation of this problem.
  • membership problem
  • separation problem
  • covering problem
  • regular languages
  • logics
  • decidable characterizations


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