Computational complexity theory

Computational complexity theory focuses on classifying computational problems according to their inherent difficulty, and relating these classes to each other. A computational problem is a task solved by a computer. A computation problem is solvable 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 their computational complexity, i.e., the amount of resources needed to solve them, such as time and storage. Other measures of complexity 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. The P versus NP problem, one of the seven Millennium Prize Problems, is dedicated to the field of computational complexity.[1]

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

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, 15 is not prime and the answer is "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

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, the output 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 (a, b, c) 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.

Machine models and complexity measures

Turing machine

A Turing machine is a mathematical model of a general computing machine. It is a theoretical device that manipulates symbols contained on a strip of tape. Turing machines are not intended as a practical computing technology, but rather as a general model of a computing machine—anything from an advanced supercomputer to a mathematician with a pencil and paper. It is believed that if a problem can be solved by an algorithm, there exists a Turing machine that solves the problem. Indeed, this is the statement of the Church–Turing thesis. Furthermore, it is known that everything that can be computed on other models of computation known to us today, such as a RAM machine, Conway's Game of Life, cellular automata or any programming language can be computed on a Turing machine. Since Turing machines are easy to analyze mathematically, and are believed to be as powerful as any other model of computation, the Turing machine is the most commonly used model in complexity theory.

Many types of Turing machines are used to define complexity classes, such as deterministic Turing machines, probabilistic Turing machines, non-deterministic Turing machines, quantum Turing machines, symmetric Turing machines and alternating Turing machines. They are all equally powerful in principle, but when resources (such as time or space) are bounded, some of these may be more powerful than others.

A deterministic Turing machine is the most basic Turing machine, which uses a fixed set of rules to determine its future actions. A probabilistic Turing machine is a deterministic Turing machine with an extra supply of random bits. The ability to make probabilistic decisions often helps algorithms solve problems more efficiently. Algorithms that use random bits are called randomized algorithms. A non-deterministic Turing machine is a deterministic Turing machine with an added feature of non-determinism, which allows a Turing machine to have multiple possible future actions from a given state. One way to view non-determinism is that the Turing machine branches into many possible computational paths at each step, and if it solves the problem in any of these branches, it is said to have solved the problem. Clearly, this model is not meant to be a physically realizable model, it is just a theoretically interesting abstract machine that gives rise to particularly interesting complexity classes. For examples, see non-deterministic algorithm.

Other machine models

Many machine models different from the standard multi-tape Turing machines have been proposed in the literature, for example random access machines. Perhaps surprisingly, each of these models can be converted to another without providing any extra computational power. The time and memory consumption of these alternate models may vary.[2] What all these models have in common is that the machines operate deterministically.

However, some computational problems are easier to analyze in terms of more unusual resources. For example, a non-deterministic Turing machine is a computational model that is allowed to branch out to check many different possibilities at once. The non-deterministic Turing machine has very little to do with how we physically want to compute algorithms, but its branching exactly captures many of the mathematical models we want to analyze, so that non-deterministic time is a very important resource in analyzing computational problems.

Complexity measures

For a precise definition of what it means to solve a problem using a given amount of time and space, a computational model such as the deterministic Turing machine is used. The time required by a deterministic Turing machine M on input x is the total number of state transitions, or steps, the machine makes before it halts and outputs the answer ("yes" or "no"). A Turing machine M is said to operate within time f(n), if the time required by M on each input of length n is at most f(n). A decision problem A can be solved in time f(n) if there exists a Turing machine operating in time f(n) that solves the problem. Since complexity theory is interested in classifying problems based on their difficulty, one defines sets of problems based on some criteria. For instance, the set of problems solvable within time f(n) on a deterministic Turing machine is then denoted by DTIME(f(n)).

Analogous definitions can be made for space requirements. Although time and space are the most well-known complexity resources, any complexity measure can be viewed as a computational resource. Complexity measures are very generally defined by the Blum complexity axioms. Other complexity measures used in complexity theory include communication complexity, circuit complexity, and decision tree complexity.

The complexity of an algorithm is often expressed using big O notation.

Best, worst and average case complexity

The best, worst and average case complexity refer to three different ways of measuring the time complexity (or any other complexity measure) of different inputs of the same size. Since some inputs of size n may be faster to solve than others, we define the following complexities:

  1. Best-case complexity: This is the complexity of solving the problem for the best input of size n.
  2. Average-case complexity: This is the complexity of solving the problem on an average. This complexity is only defined with respect to a probability distribution over the inputs. For instance, if all inputs of the same size are assumed to be equally likely to appear, the average case complexity can be defined with respect to the uniform distribution over all inputs of size n.
  3. Amortized analysis: Amortized analysis considers both the costly and less costly operations together over the whole series of operations of the algorithm.
  4. Worst-case complexity: This is the complexity of solving the problem for the worst input of size n.

The order from cheap to costly is: Best, average (of discrete uniform distribution), amortized, worst.

For example, consider the deterministic sorting algorithm quicksort. This solves the problem of sorting a list of integers that is given as the input. The worst-case is when the input is sorted or sorted in reverse order, and the algorithm takes time O(n2) for this case. If we assume that all possible permutations of the input list are equally likely, the average time taken for sorting is O(n log n). The best case occurs when each pivoting divides the list in half, also needing O(n log n) time.

Upper and lower bounds on the complexity of problems

To classify the computation time (or similar resources, such as space consumption), one is interested in proving upper and lower bounds on the maximum amount of time required by the most efficient algorithm solving a given problem. The complexity of an algorithm is usually taken to be its worst-case complexity, unless specified otherwise. Analyzing a particular algorithm falls under the field of analysis of algorithms. To show an upper bound T(n) on the time complexity of a problem, one needs to show only that there is a particular algorithm with running time at most T(n). However, proving lower bounds is much more difficult, since lower bounds make a statement about all possible algorithms that solve a given problem. The phrase "all possible algorithms" includes not just the algorithms known today, but any algorithm that might be discovered in the future. To show a lower bound of T(n) for a problem requires showing that no algorithm can have time complexity lower than T(n).

Upper and lower bounds are usually stated using the big O notation, which hides constant factors and smaller terms. This makes the bounds independent of the specific details of the computational model used. For instance, if T(n) = 7n2 + 15n + 40, in big O notation one would write T(n) = O(n2).

Complexity classes

Defining complexity classes

A complexity class is a set of problems of related complexity. Simpler complexity classes are defined by the following factors:

  • The type of computational problem: The most commonly used problems are decision problems. However, complexity classes can be defined based on function problems, counting problems, optimization problems, promise problems, etc.
  • The model of computation: The most common model of computation is the deterministic Turing machine, but many complexity classes are based on non-deterministic Turing machines, Boolean circuits, quantum Turing machines, monotone circuits, etc.
  • The resource (or resources) that are being bounded and the bounds: These two properties are usually stated together, such as "polynomial time", "logarithmic space", "constant depth", etc.

Some complexity classes have complicated definitions that do not fit into this framework. Thus, a typical complexity class has a definition like the following:

The set of decision problems solvable by a deterministic Turing machine within time f(n). (This complexity class is known as DTIME(f(n)).)

But bounding the computation time above by some concrete function f(n) often yields complexity classes that depend on the chosen machine model. For instance, the language {xx | x is any binary string} can be solved in linear time on a multi-tape Turing machine, but necessarily requires quadratic time in the model of single-tape Turing machines. If we allow polynomial variations in running time, Cobham-Edmonds thesis states that "the time complexities in any two reasonable and general models of computation are polynomially related" (Goldreich 2008, Chapter 1.2). This forms the basis for the complexity class P, which is the set of decision problems solvable by a deterministic Turing machine within polynomial time. The corresponding set of function problems is FP.

Important complexity classes

Many important complexity classes can be defined by bounding the time or space used by the algorithm. Some important complexity classes of decision problems defined in this manner are the following:

Complexity class Model of computation Resource constraint
Deterministic time
DTIME(f(n)) Deterministic Turing machine Time O(f(n))
     
P Deterministic Turing machine Time O(poly(n))
EXPTIME Deterministic Turing machine Time O(2poly(n))
Non-deterministic time
NTIME(f(n)) Non-deterministic Turing machine Time O(f(n))
     
NP Non-deterministic Turing machine Time O(poly(n))
NEXPTIME Non-deterministic Turing machine Time O(2poly(n))
Complexity class Model of computation Resource constraint
Deterministic space
DSPACE(f(n)) Deterministic Turing machine Space O(f(n))
L Deterministic Turing machine Space O(log n)
PSPACE Deterministic Turing machine Space O(poly(n))
EXPSPACE Deterministic Turing machine Space O(2poly(n))
Non-deterministic space
NSPACE(f(n)) Non-deterministic Turing machine Space O(f(n))
NL Non-deterministic Turing machine Space O(log n)
NPSPACE Non-deterministic Turing machine Space O(poly(n))
NEXPSPACE Non-deterministic Turing machine Space O(2poly(n))

The logarithmic-space classes (necessarily) do not take into account the space needed to represent the problem.

It turns out that PSPACE = NPSPACE and EXPSPACE = NEXPSPACE by Savitch's theorem.

Other important complexity classes include BPP, ZPP and RP, which are defined using probabilistic Turing machines; AC and NC, which are defined using Boolean circuits; and BQP and QMA, which are defined using quantum Turing machines. #P is an imp