Algorithms and Efficiency, Attempt 2

Combining lessons 1 through 3 from Attempt 1, we have a second attempt at defining efficiency:

Attempt 2: An algorithm is efficient if its maximum number of execution steps is polynomial in the size of its input.

Note how all three ideas come together there: steps, size, polynomial.

But if we try to put that definition to use, it still isn't perfect. Coming up with an exact formula for the maximum number of execution steps can be insanely tedious. For example, in one other algorithm textbook that we won't name (except see the end of this page), the authors develop this following polynomial for the number of execution steps taken by a pseudo-code implementation of insertion sort:

c1n+c2(n1)+c4(n1)+c5j=2ntj+c6j=2n(tj1)+c7j=2n(tj1)+c8(n1) c_1 n + c_2 (n - 1) + c_4 (n - 1) + c_5 \sum_{j=2}^{n} t_j + c_6 \sum_{j=2}^{n} (t_j - 1) + c_7 \sum_{j=2}^{n} (t_j - 1) + c_8 (n - 1)

No need for us to explain what all the variables mean. It's too complicated. Our hearts go out to the poor grad student who had to work out that one!

Precise execution bounds like that are exhausting to find and somewhat meaningless. If it takes 25 steps in Java pseudocode, but compiled down to RISC-V would take 250 steps, is the precision useful?

In some cases, yes. If you're building code that flies an airplane or controls a nuclear reactor, you might actually care about precise, real-time guarantees.

But otherwise, it would be better for us to identify broad classes of algorithms with similar performance. Instead of saying that an algorithm runs in 1.62n2+3.5n+81.62 n^2 + 3.5 n + 8 steps, how about just saying it runs in n2n^2 steps? That is, we could ignore the low-order terms and the constant factor of the highest-order term.

We ignore low-order terms because we want to THINK BIG. Algorithm efficiency is all about explaining the performance of algorithms when inputs get really big. We don't care so much about small inputs. And low-order terms don't matter when we think big. The following table shows the number of steps as a function of input size N, assuming each step takes 1 microsecond. "Very long" means more than the estimated number of atoms in the universe.

NN N2N^2 N3N^3 2N2^N
N=10 < 1 sec < 1 sec < 1 sec < 1 sec
N=100 < 1 sec < 1 sec 1 sec 1017 years
N=1,000 < 1 sec 1 sec 18 min very long
N=10,000 < 1 sec 2 min 12 days very long
N=100,000 < 1 sec 3 hours 32 years very long
N=1,000,000 1 sec 12 days 104 years very long

As you can see, when inputs get big, there's a serious difference between N3N^3 and N2N^2 and NN. We might as well ignore low-order terms, because they are completely dominated by the highest-order term when we think big.

What about constant factors? My current laptop might be 2x faster (that is, a constant factor of 2) than the one I bought several years ago, but that's not an interesting property of the algorithm. Likewise, 1.62n21.62 n^2 steps in pseduocode might be 1620n21620 n^2 steps in assembly (that is, a constant factor of 1000), but it's again not an interesting property of the algorithm. So, should we really care if one algorithm takes 2x or 1000x longer than another, if it's just a constant factor?

The answer is: maybe. Performance tuning in real-world code is about getting the constants to be small. Your employer might be really happy if you make something run twice as fast! But that's not about the algorithm. When we're measuring algorithm efficiency, in practice the constant factors just don't matter much.

So all that argues for having an imprecise abstraction to measure running time. Instead of 1.62n2+3.5n+81.62 n^2 + 3.5 n + 8, we can just write n2n^2. Imprecise abstractions are nothing new to you. You might write ±1\pm 1 to imprecisely abstract a quantity within 1. In computer science, you already know that we use Big-Oh notation as an imprecise abstraction: 1.62n2+3.5n+81.62 n^2 + 3.5 n + 8 is O(n2)O(n^2).

Next, we'll review Big-Oh notation.

PS. The formula for running time of insertion sort above is from Introduction to Algorithms, 3rd edition, 2009, by Cormen, Leiserson, Rivest, and Stein. We didn't mean to insult them. They would also tell you that such formulas are too complicated.

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