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10.1. Limits to Computing

10.1.1. Limits to Computing

Over the course of the semester, you have studied a number of models of computation or language representation: Finite state machines (DFAs, NFAs, PDAs), regular expressions, grammars, and Turing machines. Generally, our key questions have been: Is a given string a member of a given language? How do we classify a given language? And, what is the relative power of two models—do they recognize the same set of languages, or not?

All of these questions are related to “Can we…?” Generally, what has been absent is any consideration for how long it takes to do something.

In prior courses, you have probably studied many data structures that can be used in a wide variety of problems, and many examples of efficient algorithms. In general, our search algorithms strive to be at worst in \(O(\log n)\) to find a record, and our sorting algorithms strive to be in \(O(n \log n)\). You might have come across a few algorithms have higher asymptotic complexity. Both Floyd’s all-pairs shortest-paths algorithm and standard matrix multiply have running times of \(\Theta(n^3)\) (though for both, the amount of data being processed is \(\Theta(n^2)\) since they both act on \(n \times n\) matricies).

We can solve many problems efficiently because we have available (and choose to use) efficient algorithms. Given any problem for which you know some algorithm, it is always possible to write an inefficient algorithm to “solve” the problem. For example, consider a sorting algorithm that tests every possible permutation of its input until it finds the correct permutation that provides a sorted list. The running time for this algorithm would be unacceptably high, because it is proportional to the number of permutations, which is \(n!\) for \(n\) inputs. When solving the minimum-cost spanning tree problem, if we were to test every possible subset of edges to see which forms the shortest minimum spanning tree, the amount of work would be proportional to \(2^{|{\rm E}|}\) for a graph with \(|{\rm E}|\) edges. Fortunately, for both of these problems we have more clever algorithms that allow us to find answers (relatively) quickly without explicitly testing every possible solution.

Unfortunately, there are many computing problems for which the best possible algorithm takes a long time to run. A simple example is the Towers of Hanoi problem which requires \(2^n\) moves to “solve” a tower with \(n\) disks. It is not possible for any computer program that solves the Towers of Hanoi problem to run in less than \(\Omega(2^n)\) time, because that many moves must be printed out.

In this chapter, we are going to consider some aspects to the limits of computing. First, we will consider the concept of a reduction, which tells us how to relate the cost of one problem to another. Then, we will use the concept of reduction to help us understand a collection of problems called NP-Complete. These problems are interesting for many reasons: There are a lot of them, they have many practical, real-world applications, and we don’t know whether or not there exist efficient algorithms to solve them. Even more strange than this: If even one of them had an efficient solution, then all of them would have an efficient solution. The study of these topics is called computational complexity theory.

Of course while having a problem with high running time is bad, it is even worse to have a problem that cannot be solved at all! Such problems (which are called unsolveable problems) do exist. The classic example of such a problem is deciding whether an arbitrary computer program will go into an infinite loop when processing a specified input. This is known as the halting problem. To close this chapter, we will do a brief exploration of the theory of such problems.

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