## Neural Computation

Signal-to-noise ratios in physical systems can be significantly degraded if the outputs of the systems are highly variable. Biological processes for which highly stereotyped signal generations are necessary features appear to have reduced their signal variabilities by employing multiple processing steps. To better understand why this multistep cascade structure might be desirable, we prove that the reliability of a signal generated by a multistate system with no memory (i.e., a Markov chain) is maximal if and only if the system topology is such that the process steps irreversibly through each state, with transition rates chosen such that an equal fraction of the total signal is generated in each state. Furthermore, our result indicates that by increasing the number of states, it is possible to arbitrarily increase the reliability of the system. In a physical system, however, an energy cost is associated with maintaining irreversible transitions, and this cost increases with the number of such transitions (i.e., the number of states). Thus, an infinite-length chain, which would be perfectly reliable, is infeasible. To model the effects of energy demands on the maximally reliable solution, we numerically optimize the topology under two distinct energy functions that penalize either irreversible transitions or incommunicability between states, respectively. In both cases, the solutions are essentially irreversible linear chains, but with upper bounds on the number of states set by the amount of available energy. We therefore conclude that a physical system for which signal reliability is important should employ a linear architecture, with the number of states (and thus the reliability) determined by the intrinsic energy constraints of the system.