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At various times I've heard the statement that computing the group structure of $\pi_k S^n$ is algorithmic. But I've never come across a reference claiming this.

Is there a precise algorithm written down anywhere in the literature? Is there one in folklore, and if so what are the run-time estimates? Presumably they're pretty bad since nobody seems to ever mention them.

Are there any families for which there are better algorithms, say for the stable homotopy groups of spheres? or $\pi_k S^2$ ?

edit: I asked Francis Sergeraert a few questions related to his project. Apparently it's still an open question as to whether or not there is an exponential run-time algorithm to compute $\pi_k S^2$.

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The classic paper is E H Brown's "Finite Computability of Postnikov Complexes" annals of Mathematics (2) 65 (1957) pp 1-20. He shows, among other things, that the homotopy groups of a simply connected finite simplicial complex are finitely computable. No-one has ever considered the method practical to implement. – Mike-Doherty Jul 8 '10 at 8:18
up vote 29 down vote accepted

Francis Sergeraert and his coworkers have implemented his effective algebraic topology theory in a program named Kenzo. It seems capable of computing any $\pi_n(S^k)$ (in fact homotopy groups of any simply connected finite CW complex), although I don't know how far it is feasible. For instance $\pi_6 S^3$ is computed in about 30 seconds. In a 2002 paper, they mention other algorithms by Rolf Schön and by Justin Smith, not implemented at that time.

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"seems capable" sounds a little odd to me. Does that mean it's not an algorithm, more of a heuristic that hasn't broken so far? – Ryan Budney Jul 9 '10 at 2:44
Sorry for the bad phrasing. It is definitely presented as an algorithm, computing for instance the Serre spectral sequence of a fibration if base and fiber are "spaces whith effective homology" (in which case the total spaces also is). The differentials and the final extensions are also calculated (for instance $\pi_6(S^3)=\mathbb{Z}/12$ and not $mathbb{Z}/2+mathbb{Z}/6$, a case which eluded Serre in his thesis). But I haven't gone through all details, nor used Kenzo, hence my reservations. See for the most recent published account. – BS. Jul 9 '10 at 10:07
Have these algorithms ever succeeded in computing any new homotopy groups of spheres? – Mark Grant Dec 11 '13 at 12:39
@MarkGrant: I don’t think it’s been used to find any completely new material, but Kenzo has been used to correct an error in a previously “known” computation of some homotopy groups in the literature. I will try to find the reference. Update. Here is the source: they showed that $\pi_4(\Sigma K(A_4,1)) \simeq \mathbb{Z}/12$, where it had previously-published work had claimed it as $\mathbb{Z}/4$. – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Dec 11 '13 at 15:42

Here's a very useless algorithm due to Kan: Let $G(S^n)$ be the simplicial group that is Kan loop group of the $n$-sphere. In each simplicial degree, it is a free group. (This simplicial group has the homotopy type of the based loop space of $S^n$, so its homotopy groups compute the homotopy groups of $S^n$ shifted by one degree.)

For each simplicial degree $k$ define $N_k(S^n) \subset G_k(S^n)$ to be the intersection of the kernels of all but the last face maps $d_i: G_k(S^n) \to G_{k-1}(S^n)$. Then the last face map is a homomorphism $d_k: N_k(S^n) \to N_{k-1}(S^n)$. Moreover, the simplicial identities show $d_kd_{k+1}$ has constant value $1$, so we get a non-abelian chain complex of free groups. Its "homology," by a result of Kan, computes $\pi_*(S^n)$.

To get an algorithm for computing this homology, recall that the proof of the Nielsen-Schrier theorem gives a system of generators for the subgroup of any free group. So we obtain a system of generators for $N_k(S^n)$ as well as a system of generators for the image of $d_{k+1}$. So in principle we obtain a method for computing the homotopy groups of spheres.

In Kan's paper, $\pi_3(S^2)$ is computed in this way, and it takes several pages––so it's not a very good algorithm!

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I am left wondering how algorithmic the method described above actually is. Specifically, Kan states in his article A combinatorial definition of homotopy groups that the groups $N_k(X)$ need not be finitely generated. So it would seem this method is probably not effective/algorithmic in general. Is this assessment correct? If so, does the method somehow still give rise to an algorithm for computing the homotopy groups of spheres? – Ricardo Andrade Feb 5 '13 at 7:58

It is shown by D. J. Anick in The computation of rational homotopy groups is #℘-hard. Computers in geometry and topology, Proc. Conf., Chicago/Ill. 1986, Lect. Notes Pure Appl. Math. 114, 1–56, 1989. that, well, the computation of rational homotopy groups is #p-hard.

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Thanks Igor. I'll take a look when I get home. – Ryan Budney May 8 '12 at 20:39

Weinberger's Computers, rigidity, and moduli: the large-scale fractal geometry of Riemannian moduli space contains several apparently useful references on pages 93-4, in the notes section of the chapter on designer homology spheres (which you may also find of interest). Weinberger mentions "the algorithmic nature of simply connected homotopy theory" and cites the paper of Brown that Mike mentioned before going on to cite Sullivan's "Infinitesimal computations in topology." Pub. Math. IHÉS, 47 269 (1977), Griffiths and Morgan's Rational Homotopy Theory and Differential Forms, Halperin's "Lectures on minimal models." Mém. Soc. Math. France, Sér. 2, 9-10 1 (1983), and Dwyer's "Tame Homotopy Theory." Topology 18 321 (1979).

The practical upshot of these later references seems to be the calculation of $\pi_k(S^n) \otimes \mathbb{Q}$, or in the case of tame homotopy theory the analogous object involving a finite number of primes (which number increases with dimension).

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But all the interesting information is lost between $\pi_k(S^n)$ and $\pi_k(S^n)\otimes\mathbb{Q}$. – Robin Chapman Jul 8 '10 at 19:30
Good point. But I think inverting a finite number of primes saves some interesting information. – Steve Huntsman Jul 8 '10 at 20:15

There is the paper of R. V. Mikhailov and J. Wu, They construct a group whose center is an unstable homotopy group of either a sphere or a Moore space. So now it seems we could apply our algorithmic understanding of computing centers of groups, which might not be much or might be a lot, to unstable homotopy groups.

I would imagine this would be easier to work into an algorithm, perhaps this has already been done. However, I am always unsure about these things, sometimes the word problem is hiding in the shadows.

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There is no general algorithm to compute the center of a finitely presentable group. – Andy Putman May 9 '12 at 3:25
That is what I figured, but know I know. Thanks. – Sean Tilson May 9 '12 at 16:33

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