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4.2. Problems, Algorithms, and Programs

4.2.1. Problems, Algorithms, and Programs Problems

Programmers commonly deal with problems, algorithms, and computer programs. These are three distinct concepts.

As your intuition would suggest, a problem is a task to be performed. It is best thought of in terms of inputs and matching outputs. A problem definition should not include any constraints on how the problem is to be solved. The solution method should be developed only after the problem is precisely defined and thoroughly understood. However, a problem definition should include constraints on the resources that may be consumed by any acceptable solution. For any problem to be solved by a computer, there are always such constraints, whether stated or implied. For example, any computer program may use only the main memory and disk space available, and it must run in a “reasonable” amount of time.

Problems can be viewed as functions in the mathematical sense. A function is a matching between inputs (the domain) and outputs (the range). An input to a function might be a single value or a collection of information. The values making up an input are called the parameters of the function. A specific selection of values for the parameters is called an instance of the problem. For example, the input parameter to a sorting function might be an array of integers. A particular array of integers, with a given size and specific values for each position in the array, would be an instance of the sorting problem. Different instances might generate the same output. However, any problem instance must always result in the same output every time the function is computed using that particular input.

This concept of all problems behaving like mathematical functions might not match your intuition for the behavior of computer programs. You might know of programs to which you can give the same input value on two separate occasions, and two different outputs will result. For example, if you type date to a typical Linux command line prompt, you will get the current date. Naturally the date will be different on different days, even though the same command is given. However, there is obviously more to the input for the date program than the command that you type to run the program. The date program computes a function. In other words, on any particular day there can only be a single answer returned by a properly running date program on a completely specified input. For all computer programs, the output is completely determined by the program’s full set of inputs. Even a “random number generator” is completely determined by its inputs (although some random number generating systems appear to get around this by accepting a random input from a physical process beyond the user’s control). The limits to what functions can be implemented by programs is part of the domain of Computability. Algorithms

An algorithm is a method or a process followed to solve a problem. If the problem is viewed as a function, then an algorithm is an implementation for the function that transforms an input to the corresponding output. A problem can be solved by many different algorithms. A given algorithm solves only one problem (i.e., computes a particular function). OpenDSA modules cover many problems, and for several of these problems we will see more than one algorithm. For the important problem of sorting there are over a dozen commonly known algorithms!

The advantage of knowing several solutions to a problem is that solution \(\mathbf{A}\) might be more efficient than solution \(\mathbf{B}\) for a specific variation of the problem, or for a specific class of inputs to the problem, while solution \(\mathbf{B}\) might be more efficient than \(\mathbf{A}\) for another variation or class of inputs. For example, one sorting algorithm might be the best for sorting a small collection of integers (which is important if you need to do this many times). Another might be the best for sorting a large collection of integers. A third might be the best for sorting a collection of variable-length strings.

By definition, something can only be called an algorithm if it has all of the following properties.

  1. It must be correct. In other words, it must compute the desired function, converting each input to the correct output. Note that every algorithm implements some function, because every algorithm maps every input to some output (even if that output is a program crash). At issue here is whether a given algorithm implements the intended function.

  2. It is composed of a series of concrete steps. Concrete means that the action described by that step is completely understood — and doable — by the person or machine that must perform the algorithm. Each step must also be doable in a finite amount of time. Thus, the algorithm gives us a “recipe” for solving the problem by performing a series of steps, where each such step is within our capacity to perform. The ability to perform a step can depend on who or what is intended to execute the recipe. For example, the steps of a cookie recipe in a cookbook might be considered sufficiently concrete for instructing a human cook, but not for programming an automated cookie-making factory.

  3. There can be no ambiguity as to which step will be performed next. Often it is the next step of the algorithm description. Selection (e.g., the if statement) is normally a part of any language for describing algorithms. Selection allows a choice for which step will be performed next, but the selection process is unambiguous at the time when the choice is made.

  4. It must be composed of a finite number of steps. If the description for the algorithm were made up of an infinite number of steps, we could never hope to write it down, nor implement it as a computer program. Most languages for describing algorithms (including English and “pseudocode”) provide some way to perform repeated actions, known as iteration. Examples of iteration in programming languages include the while and for loop constructs. Iteration allows for short descriptions, with the number of steps actually performed controlled by the input.

  5. It must terminate. In other words, it may not go into an infinite loop. Programs

We often think of a computer program as an instance, or concrete representation, of an algorithm in some programming language. Algorithms are usually presented in terms of programs, or parts of programs. Naturally, there are many programs that are instances of the same algorithm, because any modern computer programming language can be used to implement the same collection of algorithms (although some programming languages can make life easier for the programmer). To simplify presentation, people often use the terms “algorithm” and “program” interchangeably, despite the fact that they are really separate concepts. By definition, an algorithm must provide sufficient detail that it can be converted into a program when needed.

The requirement that an algorithm must terminate means that not all computer programs meet the technical definition of an algorithm. Your operating system is one such program. However, you can think of the various tasks for an operating system (each with associated inputs and outputs) as individual problems, each solved by specific algorithms implemented by a part of the operating system program, and each one of which terminates once its output is produced. Summary

To summarize: A problem is a function or a mapping of inputs to outputs. An algorithm is a recipe for solving a problem whose steps are concrete and unambiguous. Algorithms must be correct, of finite length, and must terminate for all inputs. A program is an instantiation of an algorithm in a programming language. The following slideshow should help you to visualize the differences.


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