Algorithms and Efficiency, Attempt 1

What does it mean for an algorithm to be efficient? Our own Profs. Kleinberg and Tardos have a wonderful explanation in chapter 2 of their CS 4820 textbook, Algorithm Design (2006). Here's a summary of it.

A naive attempt at defining efficiency might proceed as follows:

Attempt 1: An algorithm is efficient if, when implemented, it runs in a small amount of time on particular input instances.

But there are many problems with that definition, such as:

  • Inefficient algorithms can run quickly on small test cases.
  • Fast processors and optimizing compilers can make inefficient algorithms run quickly.
  • Efficient algorithms can run slowly when coded sloppily.
  • Some input instances are harder than others.
  • Efficiency on small inputs doesn't imply efficiency on large inputs.
  • Some clients can afford to be more patient than others; quick for me might be slow for you.

Lesson 1: One lesson learned from that attempt is: time measured by a clock is not the right metric for algorithm efficiency. We need a metric that is reasonably independent of the hardware, compiler, other software that is running, etc. Perhaps a good metric would be to give up on time and instead count the number of steps taken during evaluation.

But, now we have a new problem: how should we define a "step"? It needs to be something machine independent. It ought to somehow represent a primitive unit of computation. There's a lot of flexibility. Here are some common choices:

  • In pseudocode, we might think of a step as being a single line.

  • In imperative languages, we might count assignments, array indexes, pointer dereferences, and arithmetic operations as steps.

  • In OCaml, we could count function or operator application, let bindings, and choosing a branch of an if or match as steps.

In reality, all of those "steps" could really take a different amount of time. But in practice, that doesn't really matter much.

Lesson 2: Another lesson we learned from attempt 1 was: running time on a particular input instance is not the right metric. We need a metric that can predict running time on any input instance. So instead of using the particular input (e.g., a number, or a matrix, or a text document), it might be better to use the size of the input (e.g., the number of bits it takes to represent the number, or the number of rows and columns in the matrix, or the number of bytes in the document) as the metric.

But again we have a new problem: how to define "size"? As in the examples we just gave, size should be some measure of how big an input is compared to other inputs. Perhaps the most common representation of size in the context of data structures is just the number of elements maintained by the data structure: the number of nodes in a list, or the number of nodes and edges in a graph, etc.

Could an algorithm run in a different amount of time on two inputs of the same "size"? Sure. For example, multiplying a matrix by all zeroes might be faster than multiplying by arbitrary numbers. But in practice, size matters more than exact inputs.

Lesson 3: A third lesson we learned from attempt 1 was that "small amount of time" is too relative a term. We want a metric that is reasonably objective, rather than relying on subjective notions of what constitutes "small".

One sort-of-okay idea would be that an efficient algorithm needs to beat brute-force search. That means enumerating all answers one-by-one, checking each to see whether it's right. For example, a brute-force sorting algorithm would enumerate every possible permutation of a list, checking to see whether it's a sorted version of the input list. That's a terrible sorting algorithm! Certainly quicksort beats it.

Brute-force search is the simple, dumb solution to nearly any algorithmic problem. But it requires enumeration of a huge space. In fact, an exponentially-sized space. So a better idea would be doing less than exponential work. What's less than exponential (e.g., 2n2^n)? One possibility is polynomial (e.g., n2n^2).

An immediate objection might be that polynomials come in all sizes. For example, n100n^{100} is way bigger than n2n^2. And some non-polynomials, such as n1+.02(logn)n^{1 +.02 (\log n)}, might do an adequate job of beating exponentials. But in practice, polynomials do seem to work fine.

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