The behavior of state machines can be observed in many devices in modern society that perform a predetermined sequence of actions depending on a sequence of events with which they are presented. Simple examples are vending machines, which dispense products when the proper combination of coins is deposited, elevators, whose sequence of stops is determined by the floors requested by riders, traffic lights, which change sequence when cars are waiting, and combination locks, which require the input of combination numbers in the proper order.
The finite state machine has less computational power than some other models of computation such as the Turing machine. The computational power distinction means there are computational tasks that a Turing machine can do but a FSM cannot. This is because a FSM's memory is limited by the number of states it has. FSMs are studied in the more general field of automata theory.
An example of a simple mechanism that can be modeled by a state machine is a turnstile. A turnstile, used to control access to subways and amusement park rides, is a gate with three rotating arms at waist height, one across the entryway. Initially the arms are locked, blocking the entry, preventing patrons from passing through. Depositing a coin or token in a slot on the turnstile unlocks the arms, allowing a single customer to push through. After the customer passes through, the arms are locked again until another coin is inserted.
Considered as a state machine, the turnstile has two possible states: Locked and Unlocked. There are two possible inputs that affect its state: putting a coin in the slot (coin) and pushing the arm (push). In the locked state, pushing on the arm has no effect; no matter how many times the input push is given, it stays in the locked state. Putting a coin in – that is, giving the machine a coin input – shifts the state from Locked to Unlocked. In the unlocked state, putting additional coins in has no effect; that is, giving additional coin inputs does not change the state. However, a customer pushing through the arms, giving a push input, shifts the state back to Locked.
The turnstile state machine can be represented by a state transition table, showing for each possible state, the transitions between them (based upon the inputs given to the machine) and the outputs resulting from each input:
The turnstile state machine can also be represented by a directed graph called a state diagram (above). Each state is represented by a node (circle). Edges (arrows) show the transitions from one state to another. Each arrow is labeled with the input that triggers that transition. An input that doesn't cause a change of state (such as a coin input in the Unlocked state) is represented by a circular arrow returning to the original state. The arrow into the Locked node from the black dot indicates it is the initial state.
A state is a description of the status of a system that is waiting to execute a transition. A transition is a set of actions to be executed when a condition is fulfilled or when an event is received. For example, when using an audio system to listen to the radio (the system is in the "radio" state), receiving a "next" stimulus results in moving to the next station. When the system is in the "CD" state, the "next" stimulus results in moving to the next track. Identical stimuli trigger different actions depending on the current state.