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Chapter: Introduction to the Design and Analysis of Algorithms

Fundamentals of Algorithmic Problem Solving

From a practical perspective, the first thing you need to do before designing an algorithm is to understand completely the problem given.

Fundamentals of Algorithmic Problem Solving


Let us start by reiterating an important point made in the introduction to this chapter:


We can consider algorithms to be procedural solutions to problems.


These solutions are not answers but specific instructions for getting answers. It is this emphasis on precisely defined constructive procedures that makes computer science distinct from other disciplines. In particular, this distinguishes it from the-oretical mathematics, whose practitioners are typically satisfied with just proving the existence of a solution to a problem and, possibly, investigating the solution’s properties.


We now list and briefly discuss a sequence of steps one typically goes through in designing and analyzing an algorithm (Figure 1.2).

Understanding the Problem


From a practical perspective, the first thing you need to do before designing an algorithm is to understand completely the problem given. Read the problem’s description carefully and ask questions if you have any doubts about the problem, do a few small examples by hand, think about special cases, and ask questions again if needed.


There are a few types of problems that arise in computing applications quite often. We review them in the next section. If the problem in question is one of them, you might be able to use a known algorithm for solving it. Of course, it helps to understand how such an algorithm works and to know its strengths and weaknesses, especially if you have to choose among several available algorithms. But often you will not find a readily available algorithm and will have to design your own. The sequence of steps outlined in this section should help you in this exciting but not always easy task.

An input to an algorithm specifies an instance of the problem the algorithm solves. It is very important to specify exactly the set of instances the algorithm needs to handle. (As an example, recall the variations in the set of instances for the three greatest common divisor algorithms discussed in the previous section.) If you fail to do this, your algorithm may work correctly for a majority of inputs but crash on some “boundary” value. Remember that a correct algorithm is not one that works most of the time, but one that works correctly for all legitimate inputs.


Do not skimp on this first step of the algorithmic problem-solving process; otherwise, you will run the risk of unnecessary rework.


Ascertaining the Capabilities of the Computational Device

Once you completely understand a problem, you need to ascertain the capabilities of the computational device the algorithm is intended for. The vast majority of 

algorithms in use today are still destined to be programmed for a computer closely resembling the von Neumann machine—a computer architecture outlined by the prominent Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann (1903– 1957), in collaboration with A. Burks and H. Goldstine, in 1946. The essence of this architecture is captured by the so-called random-access machine (RAM). Its central assumption is that instructions are executed one after another, one operation at a time. Accordingly, algorithms designed to be executed on such machines are called sequential algorithms.


The central assumption of the RAM model does not hold for some newer computers that can execute operations concurrently, i.e., in parallel. Algorithms that take advantage of this capability are called parallel algorithms. Still, studying the classic techniques for design and analysis of algorithms under the RAM model remains the cornerstone of algorithmics for the foreseeable future.

Should you worry about the speed and amount of memory of a computer at your disposal? If you are designing an algorithm as a scientific exercise, the answer is a qualified no. As you will see in Section 2.1, most computer scientists prefer to study algorithms in terms independent of specification parameters for a particular computer. If you are designing an algorithm as a practical tool, the answer may depend on a problem you need to solve. Even the “slow” computers of today are almost unimaginably fast. Consequently, in many situations you need not worry about a computer being too slow for the task. There are important problems, however, that are very complex by their nature, or have to process huge volumes of data, or deal with applications where the time is critical. In such situations, it is imperative to be aware of the speed and memory available on a particular computer system.



Choosing between Exact and Approximate Problem Solving

The next principal decision is to choose between solving the problem exactly or solving it approximately. In the former case, an algorithm is called an exact algo-rithm; in the latter case, an algorithm is called an approximation algorithm. Why would one opt for an approximation algorithm? First, there are important prob-lems that simply cannot be solved exactly for most of their instances; examples include extracting square roots, solving nonlinear equations, and evaluating def-inite integrals. Second, available algorithms for solving a problem exactly can be unacceptably slow because of the problem’s intrinsic complexity. This happens, in particular, for many problems involving a very large number of choices; you will see examples of such difficult problems in Chapters 3, 11, and 12. Third, an ap-proximation algorithm can be a part of a more sophisticated algorithm that solves a problem exactly.


Algorithm Design Techniques


Now, with all the components of the algorithmic problem solving in place, how do you design an algorithm to solve a given problem? This is the main question this book seeks to answer by teaching you several general design techniques.


What is an algorithm design technique?


An algorithm design technique (or “strategy” or “paradigm”) is a general approach to solving problems algorithmically that is applicable to a variety of problems from different areas of computing.


Check this book’s table of contents and you will see that a majority of its chapters are devoted to individual design techniques. They distill a few key ideas that have proven to be useful in designing algorithms. Learning these techniques is of utmost importance for the following reasons.


First, they provide guidance for designing algorithms for new problems, i.e., problems for which there is no known satisfactory algorithm. Therefore—to use the language of a famous proverb—learning such techniques is akin to learning to fish as opposed to being given a fish caught by somebody else. It is not true, of course, that each of these general techniques will be necessarily applicable to every problem you may encounter. But taken together, they do constitute a powerful collection of tools that you will find quite handy in your studies and work.


Second, algorithms are the cornerstone of computer science. Every science is interested in classifying its principal subject, and computer science is no exception. Algorithm design techniques make it possible to classify algorithms according to an underlying design idea; therefore, they can serve as a natural way to both categorize and study algorithms.


Designing an Algorithm and Data Structures

While the algorithm design techniques do provide a powerful set of general ap-proaches to algorithmic problem solving, designing an algorithm for a particular problem may still be a challenging task. Some design techniques can be simply inapplicable to the problem in question. Sometimes, several techniques need to be combined, and there are algorithms that are hard to pinpoint as applications of the known design techniques. Even when a particular design technique is ap-plicable, getting an algorithm often requires a nontrivial ingenuity on the part of the algorithm designer. With practice, both tasks—choosing among the general techniques and applying them—get easier, but they are rarely easy.


Of course, one should pay close attention to choosing data structures appro-priate for the operations performed by the algorithm. For example, the sieve of Eratosthenes introduced in Section 1.1 would run longer if we used a linked list instead of an array in its implementation (why?). Also note that some of the al-gorithm design techniques discussed in Chapters 6 and 7 depend intimately on structuring or restructuring data specifying a problem’s instance. Many years ago, an influential textbook proclaimed the fundamental importance of both algo-rithms and data structures for computer programming by its very title: Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs [Wir76]. In the new world of object-oriented programming, data structures remain crucially important for both design and analysis of algorithms. We review basic data structures in Section 1.4.


Methods of Specifying an Algorithm


Once you have designed an algorithm, you need to specify it in some fashion. In Section 1.1, to give you an example, Euclid’s algorithm is described in words (in a free and also a step-by-step form) and in pseudocode. These are the two options that are most widely used nowadays for specifying algorithms.

Using a natural language has an obvious appeal; however, the inherent ambi-guity of any natural language makes a succinct and clear description of algorithms surprisingly difficult. Nevertheless, being able to do this is an important skill that you should strive to develop in the process of learning algorithms.


Pseudocode is a mixture of a natural language and programming language-like constructs. Pseudocode is usually more precise than natural language, and its usage often yields more succinct algorithm descriptions. Surprisingly, computer scientists have never agreed on a single form of pseudocode, leaving textbook authors with a need to design their own “dialects.” Fortunately, these dialects are so close to each other that anyone familiar with a modern programming language should be able to understand them all.


This book’s dialect was selected to cause minimal difficulty for a reader. For the sake of simplicity, we omit declarations of variables and use indentation to show the scope of such statements as for, if, and while. As you saw in the previous section, we use an arrow “” for the assignment operation and two slashes “//” for comments.


In the earlier days of computing, the dominant vehicle for specifying algo-rithms was a flowchart, a method of expressing an algorithm by a collection of connected geometric shapes containing descriptions of the algorithm’s steps. This representation technique has proved to be inconvenient for all but very simple algorithms; nowadays, it can be found only in old algorithm books.


The state of the art of computing has not yet reached a point where an algorithm’s description—be it in a natural language or pseudocode—can be fed into an electronic computer directly. Instead, it needs to be converted into a computer program written in a particular computer language. We can look at such a program as yet another way of specifying the algorithm, although it is preferable to consider it as the algorithm’s implementation.



Proving an Algorithm’s Correctness


Once an algorithm has been specified, you have to prove its correctness. That is, you have to prove that the algorithm yields a required result for every legitimate input in a finite amount of time. For example, the correctness of Euclid’s algorithm for computing the greatest common divisor stems from the correctness of the equality gcd(m, n) = gcd(n, m mod n) (which, in turn, needs a proof; see Problem 7 in Exercises 1.1), the simple observation that the second integer gets smaller on every iteration of the algorithm, and the fact that the algorithm stops when the second integer becomes 0.

For some algorithms, a proof of correctness is quite easy; for others, it can be quite complex. A common technique for proving correctness is to use mathemati-cal induction because an algorithm’s iterations provide a natural sequence of steps needed for such proofs. It might be worth mentioning that although tracing the algorithm’s performance for a few specific inputs can be a very worthwhile activ-ity, it cannot prove the algorithm’s correctness conclusively. But in order to show that an algorithm is incorrect, you need just one instance of its input for which the algorithm fails.


The notion of correctness for approximation algorithms is less straightforward than it is for exact algorithms. For an approximation algorithm, we usually would like to be able to show that the error produced by the algorithm does not exceed a predefined limit. You can find examples of such investigations in Chapter 12.


Analyzing an Algorithm

We usually want our algorithms to possess several qualities. After correctness, by far the most important is efficiency. In fact, there are two kinds of algorithm efficiency: time efficiency, indicating how fast the algorithm runs, and space ef-ficiency, indicating how much extra memory it uses. A general framework and specific techniques for analyzing an algorithm’s efficiency appear in Chapter 2.


Another desirable characteristic of an algorithm is simplicity. Unlike effi-ciency, which can be precisely defined and investigated with mathematical rigor, simplicity, like beauty, is to a considerable degree in the eye of the beholder. For example, most people would agree that Euclid’s algorithm is simpler than the middle-school procedure for computing gcd(m, n), but it is not clear whether Eu-clid’s algorithm is simpler than the consecutive integer checking algorithm. Still, simplicity is an important algorithm characteristic to strive for. Why? Because sim-pler algorithms are easier to understand and easier to program; consequently, the resulting programs usually contain fewer bugs. There is also the undeniable aes-thetic appeal of simplicity. Sometimes simpler algorithms are also more efficient than more complicated alternatives. Unfortunately, it is not always true, in which case a judicious compromise needs to be made.


Yet another desirable characteristic of an algorithm is generality. There are, in fact, two issues here: generality of the problem the algorithm solves and the set of inputs it accepts. On the first issue, note that it is sometimes easier to design an algorithm for a problem posed in more general terms. Consider, for example, the problem of determining whether two integers are relatively prime, i.e., whether their only common divisor is equal to 1. It is easier to design an algorithm for a more general problem of computing the greatest common divisor of two integers and, to solve the former problem, check whether the gcd is 1 or not. There are situations, however, where designing a more general algorithm is unnecessary or difficult or even impossible. For example, it is unnecessary to sort a list of n numbers to find its median, which is its n/2 th smallest element. To give another example, the standard formula for roots of a quadratic equation cannot be generalized to handle polynomials of arbitrary degrees.


As to the set of inputs, your main concern should be designing an algorithm that can handle a set of inputs that is natural for the problem at hand. For example, excluding integers equal to 1 as possible inputs for a greatest common divisor algorithm would be quite unnatural. On the other hand, although the standard formula for the roots of a quadratic equation holds for complex coefficients, we would normally not implement it on this level of generality unless this capability is explicitly required.


If you are not satisfied with the algorithm’s efficiency, simplicity, or generality, you must return to the drawing board and redesign the algorithm. In fact, even if your evaluation is positive, it is still worth searching for other algorithmic solutions. Recall the three different algorithms in the previous section for computing the greatest common divisor: generally, you should not expect to get the best algorithm on the first try. At the very least, you should try to fine-tune the algorithm you already have. For example, we made several improvements in our implementation of the sieve of Eratosthenes compared with its initial outline in Section 1.1. (Can you identify them?) You will do well if you keep in mind the following observation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery,´ the French writer, pilot, and aircraft designer: “A designer knows he has arrived at perfection not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”1



Coding an Algorithm

 Most algorithms are destined to be ultimately implemented as computer pro-grams. Programming an algorithm presents both a peril and an opportunity. The peril lies in the possibility of making the transition from an algorithm to a pro-gram either incorrectly or very inefficiently. Some influential computer scientists strongly believe that unless the correctness of a computer program is proven with full mathematical rigor, the program cannot be considered correct. They have developed special techniques for doing such proofs (see [Gri81]), but the power of these techniques of formal verification is limited so far to very small programs.


As a practical matter, the validity of programs is still established by testing. Testing of computer programs is an art rather than a science, but that does not mean that there is nothing in it to learn. Look up books devoted to testing and debugging; even more important, test and debug your program thoroughly whenever you implement an algorithm.


Also note that throughout the book, we assume that inputs to algorithms belong to the specified sets and hence require no verification. When implementing algorithms as programs to be used in actual applications, you should provide such verifications.


Of course, implementing an algorithm correctly is necessary but not sufficient: you would not like to diminish your algorithm’s power by an inefficient implemen-tation. Modern compilers do provide a certain safety net in this regard, especially when they are used in their code optimization mode. Still, you need to be aware of such standard tricks as computing a loop’s invariant (an expression that does not change its value) outside the loop, collecting common subexpressions, replac-ing expensive operations by cheap ones, and so on. (See [Ker99] and [Ben00] for a good discussion of code tuning and other issues related to algorithm program-ming.) Typically, such improvements can speed up a program only by a constant factor, whereas a better algorithm can make a difference in running time by orders of magnitude. But once an algorithm is selected, a 10–50% speedup may be worth an effort.

A working program provides an additional opportunity in allowing an em-pirical analysis of the underlying algorithm. Such an analysis is based on timing the program on several inputs and then analyzing the results obtained. We dis-cuss the advantages and disadvantages of this approach to analyzing algorithms in Section 2.6.


In conclusion, let us emphasize again the main lesson of the process depicted in Figure 1.2:


As a rule, a good algorithm is a result of repeated effort and rework.


Even if you have been fortunate enough to get an algorithmic idea that seems perfect, you should still try to see whether it can be improved.


Actually, this is good news since it makes the ultimate result so much more enjoyable. (Yes, I did think of naming this book The Joy of Algorithms.) On the other hand, how does one know when to stop? In the real world, more often than not a project’s schedule or the impatience of your boss will stop you. And so it should be: perfection is expensive and in fact not always called for. Designing an algorithm is an engineering-like activity that calls for compromises among competing goals under the constraints of available resources, with the designer’s time being one of the resources.


In the academic world, the question leads to an interesting but usually difficult investigation of an algorithm’s optimality. Actually, this question is not about the efficiency of an algorithm but about the complexity of the problem it solves: What is the minimum amount of effort any algorithm will need to exert to solve the problem? For some problems, the answer to this question is known. For example, any algorithm that sorts an array by comparing values of its elements needs about n log2 n comparisons for some arrays of size n (see Section 11.2). But for many seemingly easy problems such as integer multiplication, computer scientists do not yet have a final answer.


Another important issue of algorithmic problem solving is the question of whether or not every problem can be solved by an algorithm. We are not talking here about problems that do not have a solution, such as finding real roots of a quadratic equation with a negative discriminant. For such cases, an output indicating that the problem does not have a solution is all we can and should expect from an algorithm. Nor are we talking about ambiguously stated problems. Even some unambiguous problems that must have a simple yes or no answer are “undecidable,” i.e., unsolvable by any algorithm. An important example of such a problem appears in Section 11.3. Fortunately, a vast majority of problems in practical computing can be solved by an algorithm.


Before leaving this section, let us be sure that you do not have the misconception—possibly caused by the somewhat mechanical nature of the diagram of Figure 1.2—that designing an algorithm is a dull activity. There is nothing further from the truth: inventing (or discovering?) algorithms is a very creative and rewarding process. This book is designed to convince you that this is the case.



Exercises 1.2

            Old World puzzle A peasant finds himself on a riverbank with a wolf, a goat, and a head of cabbage. He needs to transport all three to the other side of the river in his boat. However, the boat has room for only the peasant himself and one other item (either the wolf, the goat, or the cabbage). In his absence, the wolf would eat the goat, and the goat would eat the cabbage. Solve this problem for the peasant or prove it has no solution. (Note: The peasant is a vegetarian but does not like cabbage and hence can eat neither the goat nor the cabbage to help him solve the problem. And it goes without saying that the wolf is a protected species.)


            New World puzzle There are four people who want to cross a rickety bridge; they all begin on the same side. You have 17 minutes to get them all across to the other side. It is night, and they have one flashlight. A maximum of two people can cross the bridge at one time. Any party that crosses, either one or two people, must have the flashlight with them. The flashlight must be walked back and forth; it cannot be thrown, for example. Person 1 takes 1 minute to cross the bridge, person 2 takes 2 minutes, person 3 takes 5 minutes, and person 4 takes 10 minutes. A pair must walk together at the rate of the slower person’s pace. (Note: According to a rumor on the Internet, interviewers at a well-known software company located near Seattle have given this problem to interviewees.)


            Which of the following formulas can be considered an algorithm for comput-ing the area of a triangle whose side lengths are given positive numbers a, b, and c?

            Write pseudocode for an algorithm for finding real roots of equation ax2 + bx + c = 0 for arbitrary real coefficients a, b, and c. (You may assume the availability of the square root function sqrt (x).)


            Describe the standard algorithm for finding the binary representation of a positive decimal integer


                     in English.


                     in pseudocode.


            Describe the algorithm used by your favorite ATM machine in dispensing cash. (You may give your description in either English or pseudocode, which-ever you find more convenient.)


            a.  Can the problem of computing the number π be solved exactly?


                     How many instances does this problem have?


Look up an algorithm for this problem on the Internet.

                                                                    Give an example of a problem other than computing the greatest common divisor for which you know more than one algorithm. Which of them is simpler? Which is more efficient?


                                                                    Consider the following algorithm for finding the distance between the two closest elements in an array of numbers.


ALGORITHM                      MinDistance(A[0..n 1])


//Input: Array A[0..n 1] of numbers


//Output: Minimum distance between two of its elements dmin ← ∞


for i ← 0 to n − 1 do

for j ← 0 to n − 1 do

if i  = j and |A[i] − A[j ]| < dmin dmin ← |A[i] − A[j ]|

return dmin

Make as many improvements as you can in this algorithmic solution to the problem. If you need to, you may change the algorithm altogether; if not, improve the implementation given.

One of the most influential books on problem solving, titled How To Solve It [Pol57], was written by the Hungarian-American mathematician George Polya´ (1887–1985). Polya´ summarized his ideas in a four-point summary. Find this summary on the Internet or, better yet, in his book, and compare it with the plan outlined in Section 1.2. What do they have in common? How are they different?

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