A finite automaton is a strictly finitary model of computation. Everything involved is of a fixed, finite size and cannot be extended during the course of computation. The other types of automata studied later have at least a potentially infinite memory. Differences between various types of automata are based mainly on how information can be accessed in the memory.
A finite automaton operates in discrete time, as do all essential models of computation. Thus, we may speak of the “next” time instant when specifying the functioning of a finite automaton.
The simplest case is the memoryless device, where, at each time instant, the output depends only on the current input. Such devices are models of combinational circuits.
In general, however, the output produced by a finite automaton depends on the current input as well as on earlier inputs. Thus, the automaton is capable (to a certain extent) of remembering its past inputs. More specifically, this means the following.
The automaton has a finite number of internal memory states. At each time instant i it is in one of these states, say qi. The state qi + 1 at the next time instant is determined by qi and by the input at given at time instant i. The output at time instant i is determined by the state qi (or by qi and ai, together).