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In computability theory, a system of data-manipulation rules (such as a computer's instruction set, a programming language, or a cellular automaton) is said to be Turing complete or computationally universal if it can be used to simulate any Turing machine. This means that this system is able to recognize or decide other data-manipulation rule sets. Turing completeness is used as a way to express the power of such a data-manipulation rule set. Virtually all programming languages today are Turing complete. The concept is named after English mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing.

To show that something is Turing complete, it is enough to show that it can be used to simulate some Turing complete system. For example, an imperative language is Turing complete if it has conditional branching (e.g., "if" and "goto" statements, or a "branch if zero" instruction; see one instruction set computer) and the ability to change an arbitrary amount of memory (e.g., the ability to maintain an arbitrary number of data items). Of course, no physical system can have infinite memory; but if the limitation of finite memory is ignored, most programming languages are otherwise Turing complete.

Real computers constructed so far can be functionally analyzed like a single-tape Turing machine (the "tape" corresponding to their memory); thus the associated mathematics can apply by abstracting their operation far enough. However, real computers have limited physical resources, so they are only linear bounded automaton complete. In contrast, a universal computer is defined as a device with a Turing complete instruction set, infinite memory, and infinite available time.

Turing completeness is significant in that every real-world design for a computing device can be simulated by a universal Turing machine. The Church–Turing thesis states that this is a law of mathematics – that a universal Turing machine can, in principle, perform any calculation that any other programmable computer can. This says nothing about the effort needed to write the program, or the time it may take for the machine to perform the calculation, or any abilities the machine may possess that have nothing to do with computation.

In the late 19th century, Leopold Kronecker formulated notions of computability, defining primitive recursive functions. These functions can be calculated by rote computation, but they are not enough to make a universal computer, because the instructions which compute them do not allow for an infinite loop. In the early 20th century, David Hilbert led a program to axiomatize all of mathematics with precise axioms and precise logical rules of deduction which could be performed by a machine. Soon, it became clear that a small set of deduction rules are enough to produce the consequences of any set of axioms. These rules were proved by Kurt Godel in 1930 to be enough to produce every theorem.

Computability theory characterizes problems as having, or not having, computational solutions. The first result of computability theory is that there exist problems for which it is impossible to predict what a (Turing-complete) system will do over an arbitrarily long time.

One can instead limit a program to executing only for a fixed period of time (timeout), or limit the power of flow control instructions (for example, providing only loops that iterate over the items of an existing array). However, another theorem shows that there are problems solvable by Turing-complete languages that cannot be solved by any language with only finite looping abilities (i.e., any language that guarantees every program will eventually finish to a halt). So any such language is not Turing complete. For example, a language in which programs are guaranteed to complete and halt cannot compute the computable function which is produced by Cantor's diagonal argument on all computable functions in that language.

Turing completeness in declarative SQL is implemented through recursive common table expressions. Unsurprisingly, procedural extensions to SQL (PLSQL, etc.) are also Turing complete. This illustrates one reason why relatively powerful non-Turing-complete languages are rare: the more powerful the language is initially, the more complex are the tasks to which it is applied and the sooner its lack of completeness becomes perceived as a drawback, encouraging its extension until it is Turing complete.

In total functional programming languages, such as Charity and Epigram, all functions are total and must terminate. Charity uses a type system and control constructs based on category theory, whereas Epigram uses dependent types. The LOOP language is designed so that it computes only the functions that are primitive recursive. All of these compute proper subsets of the total computable functions, since the full set of total computable functions is not computably enumerable. Also, since all functions in these languages are total, algorithms for recursively enumerable sets cannot be written in these languages, in contrast with Turing machines.