Computational complexity theory

Computational complexity theory is a branch of the theory of computation in theoretical computer science that focuses on classifying computational problems according to their inherent difficulty, and relating those classes to each other. A computational problem is understood to be a task that is in principle amenable to being solved by a computer, which is equivalent to stating that the problem may be solved by mechanical application of mathematical steps, such as an algorithm.

A problem is regarded as inherently difficult if its solution requires significant resources, whatever the algorithm used. The theory formalizes this intuition, by introducing mathematical models of computation to study these problems and quantifying the amount of resources needed to solve them, such as time and storage. Other complexity measures are also used, such as the amount of communication (used in communication complexity), the number of gates in a circuit (used in circuit complexity) and the number of processors (used in parallel computing). One of the roles of computational complexity theory is to determine the practical limits on what computers can and cannot do.

Closely related fields in theoretical computer science are analysis of algorithms and computability theory. A key distinction between analysis of algorithms and computational complexity theory is that the former is devoted to analyzing the amount of resources needed by a particular algorithm to solve a problem, whereas the latter asks a more general question about all possible algorithms that could be used to solve the same problem. More precisely, computational complexity theory tries to classify problems that can or cannot be solved with appropriately restricted resources. In turn, imposing restrictions on the available resources is what distinguishes computational complexity from computability theory: the latter theory asks what kind of problems can, in principle, be solved algorithmically.

Computational problems

A traveling salesman tour through Germany's 15 largest cities.

Problem instances

A computational problem can be viewed as an infinite collection of instances together with a solution for every instance. The input string for a computational problem is referred to as a problem instance, and should not be confused with the problem itself. In computational complexity theory, a problem refers to the abstract question to be solved. In contrast, an instance of this problem is a rather concrete utterance, which can serve as the input for a decision problem. For example, consider the problem of primality testing. The instance is a number (e.g. 15) and the solution is "yes" if the number is prime and "no" otherwise (in this case "no"). Stated another way, the instance is a particular input to the problem, and the solution is the output corresponding to the given input.

To further highlight the difference between a problem and an instance, consider the following instance of the decision version of the traveling salesman problem: Is there a route of at most 2000 kilometres passing through all of Germany's 15 largest cities? The quantitative answer to this particular problem instance is of little use for solving other instances of the problem, such as asking for a round trip through all sites in Milan whose total length is at most 10 km. For this reason, complexity theory addresses computational problems and not particular problem instances.

Representing problem instances

When considering computational problems, a problem instance is a string over an alphabet. Usually, the alphabet is taken to be the binary alphabet (i.e., the set {0,1}), and thus the strings are bitstrings. As in a real-world computer, mathematical objects other than bitstrings must be suitably encoded. For example, integers can be represented in binary notation, and graphs can be encoded directly via their adjacency matrices, or by encoding their adjacency lists in binary.

Even though some proofs of complexity-theoretic theorems regularly assume some concrete choice of input encoding, one tries to keep the discussion abstract enough to be independent of the choice of encoding. This can be achieved by ensuring that different representations can be transformed into each other efficiently.

Decision problems as formal languages

A decision problem has only two possible outputs, yes or no (or alternately 1 or 0) on any input.

Decision problems are one of the central objects of study in computational complexity theory. A decision problem is a special type of computational problem whose answer is either yes or no, or alternately either 1 or 0. A decision problem can be viewed as a formal language, where the members of the language are instances whose output is yes, and the non-members are those instances whose output is no. The objective is to decide, with the aid of an algorithm, whether a given input string is a member of the formal language under consideration. If the algorithm deciding this problem returns the answer yes, the algorithm is said to accept the input string, otherwise it is said to reject the input.

An example of a decision problem is the following. The input is an arbitrary graph. The problem consists in deciding whether the given graph is connected, or not. The formal language associated with this decision problem is then the set of all connected graphs — to obtain a precise definition of this language, one has to decide how graphs are encoded as binary strings.

Function problems

A function problem is a computational problem where a single output (of a total function) is expected for every input, but the output is more complex than that of a decision problem, that is, it isn't just yes or no. Notable examples include the traveling salesman problem and the integer factorization problem.

It is tempting to think that the notion of function problems is much richer than the notion of decision problems. However, this is not really the case, since function problems can be recast as decision problems. For example, the multiplication of two integers can be expressed as the set of triples (abc) such that the relation a × b = c holds. Deciding whether a given triple is a member of this set corresponds to solving the problem of multiplying two numbers.

Measuring the size of an instance

To measure the difficulty of solving a computational problem, one may wish to see how much time the best algorithm requires to solve the problem. However, the running time may, in general, depend on the instance. In particular, larger instances will require more time to solve. Thus the time required to solve a problem (or the space required, or any measure of complexity) is calculated as a function of the size of the instance. This is usually taken to be the size of the input in bits. Complexity theory is interested in how algorithms scale with an increase in the input size. For instance, in the problem of finding whether a graph is connected, how much more time does it take to solve a problem for a graph with 2n vertices compared to the time taken for a graph with n vertices?

If the input size is n, the time taken can be expressed as a function of n. Since the time taken on different inputs of the same size can be different, the worst-case time complexity T(n) is defined to be the maximum time taken over all inputs of size n. If T(n) is a polynomial in n, then the algorithm is said to be a polynomial time algorithm. Cobham's thesis argues that a problem can be solved with a feasible amount of resources if it admits a polynomial time algorithm.

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