10 Algorithmic Problems Yet to Solve - dummies

10 Algorithmic Problems Yet to Solve

By John Paul Mueller, Luca Massaron

Algorithms have indeed been around for centuries, so you’d think that scientists would have discovered and solved every algorithm by now. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Solving a particular algorithm often presents a few more questions that the algorithm doesn’t solve and that didn’t seem apparent until someone did come up with the solution.

Algorithms are a series of steps used to solve a problem, and you shouldn’t confuse them with other entities, such as equations. An algorithm is never a solution in search of a problem. No one would create a series of steps to solve a problem that doesn’t yet exist (or may never exist).

This list is about algorithmic problems that would serve a purpose should someone find a solution for them.

Dealing with text searches

Many text searches involve the use of regular expressions — a sort of shorthand that tells the computer what to find. The grammar used for the regular expression depends on the language or application, but you find regular expressions used in a number of places, including word processors, email applications, search dialogs, and in all sorts of other places where you need to provide precise search terms for a range of text items.

One of the current problems with regular expressions is that it seems as if every application environment has a similar set of rules, but with just enough differences to make creating a search term hard. The generalized star-height problem seeks to discover whether a generalized regular expression syntax exists. If so, the resulting algorithm would make it possible for someone to learn just one method of creating regular expressions to perform searches.

Differentiating words

When working with characters, a computer sees numbers, not letters. The numbers are actually just a series of 0s and 1s to the computer and don’t actually have any meaning. Combining characters into strings just makes the series of 0s and 1s longer. Consequently, comparing two strings, something that a human can do at a glance, can take time within a computer, and confusion is likely between conjugates. For example, unless you’re careful in constructing the algorithm, a computer could confuse enlist and listen. More important, the computer would require time to discern the difference between the two. The separating words problem seeks to find the smallest (and fastest) possible algorithm (a deterministic finite automaton, DFN, in this case) to perform word separation. The goal is to accept one word and reject another, given two words of a particular length.

Determining whether an application will end

One of the problems that Alan Turing proposed in 1936 is the issue of whether an algorithm, given a description of a program and an input, could determine whether the program would eventually halt (the halting problem). When working with a simple application, it’s easy to determine in many cases whether the program will halt or continue running in an endless loop. However, as program complexity increases, determining the result of running the program with any given input becomes harder. A Turing machine can’t make this determination; the result is buggy code with infinite loops. No amount of testing that uses current technology can solve this issue.

A hypercomputer is a computing model that goes beyond the Turing machine to solve problems such as the halting problem. However, such machines aren’t possible using current technology. If they were possible, you would be able to ask them all kinds of imponderables that computers can’t currently answer. This article provides you with a good idea of what would happen if someone were able to solve this problem.

Creating and using one-way functions

A one-way function is a function that is easy to use to obtain an answer in one direction, but nearly impossible to use with the inverse of that answer. In other words, you use a one-way function to create something like a hash that would appear as part of a solution for cryptography, personal identification, authentication, or other data security needs.

The existence of a one-way function is less mystery and more a matter of proof. Many telecommunications, e-commerce, and e-banking systems currently rely on functions that are purportedly one way, but no one truly knows whether they really are one way. The existence of a one-way function is currently a hypothesis, not a theory. If someone were able to prove that a one-way function exists, data security issues would be easier to solve from a programming perspective.

Multiplying really large numbers

Really large numbers exist in many places. For example, consider performing the calculations involving distances to Mars, or perhaps Pluto. Methods currently do exist for performing multiplication on really large numbers, but they tend to be slow because they require multiple operations to complete. The problem occurs when the numbers are too large to fit in the processor’s registers. At that point, the multiplication must occur in more than one step, which slows things considerably. The current solutions include:

  • Gauss’s complex multiplication algorithm
  • Karatsuba multiplication
  • Toom-Cook
  • Fourier transform methods

Even though many of the methods currently available produce acceptable results, they all take time, and when you have a lot of calculations to perform, the time problem can become critical. Consequently, large number multiplication is one of those problems that requires a better solution than those available today.

Dividing a resource equally

Dividing resources equally may not seem hard, but humans, being the envious sort, might see the resource as being unequally divided unless you can find a way to assure everyone that the division is indeed fair. This is the envy-free cake-cutting problem. Of course, when you cut a cake, no matter how fairly you attempt to do it, there is always the perception that the division is unfair. Creating a fair division of resources is important in daily life to minimize strife between stakeholders in any organization, making everyone more efficient.

Two solutions already exist for the envy-free cake-cutting problem with a specific number of people, but no general solution exists. When there are two people involved, the first cuts the cake and the second chooses the first piece. In this way, both parties are assured of an equal division. The problem becomes harder with three people, but you can try the Selfridge-Conway solution for the problem. However, after you get to four people, no solution exists.

Reducing edit distance calculation time

The edit distance between two strings is the number of operations required to transform one string into the other string. The distance calculation revolves around the Levenshtein distance operations, which are the removal, insertion, or substitution of a character in the string. This particular technique sees use in natural language interfaces, DNA sequence quantification, and all sorts of other places where you can have two similar strings that require some sort of comparison or modification.

A number of solutions for this problem currently exist, all of them quite slow. In fact, most of them take exponential time, so the time required to perform a transformation quickly adds up to the point where humans can see pauses in the processing of input. The pause isn’t quite so bad when using a word processor that performs automatic word checks and changes a misspelled word into the correct one. However, when using voice interfaces, the pause can become quite noticeable and cause the human operator to make mistakes.

Solving problems quickly

As machine learning takes off and we count more and more on computers to solve problems, the issue of how quickly a computer can solve a problem becomes critical. The P versus NP problem simply asks whether a computer can solve a problem quickly when it can verify the solution to the problem quickly. In other words, if the computer can reasonably ascertain that a human response to a problem is correct in polynomial time or less, can it also solve the problem itself in polynomial time or less?

This question was originally discussed in the 1950s by John Nash in letters to the National Security Agency (NSA) and again in letters between Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann. In addition to machine learning (and AI in general), this particular problem is a concern to many other fields, including mathematics, cryptography, algorithm research, game theory, multimedia processing, philosophy, and economics.

Playing the parity game

At first, solving a game might not seem all that useful in real life. Yes, games are fun and interesting, but they don’t really provide a background for doing anything useful — at least, that’s the general theory. However, game theory does come into play in a large number of real-life scenarios, many of which involve complex processes that someone can understand more easily as games than as actual processes. In this case, the game helps people understand automated verification and controller synthesis, among other things. You can read more about the parity game. In fact, you can play it.

Understanding spatial issues

To put this particular problem into context, think about moving boxes around in a warehouse or some other situations in which you need to consider the space in which things move. Obviously, if you have many boxes in a big warehouse and they all require a forklift to pick up, you don’t want to try to figure out how to store them optimally by physically rearranging them. This is where you need to work through the problem by visualizing a solution.

However, the question is whether all spatial problems have a solution. In this case, think about one of those kids’ puzzles that has you putting a picture together by sliding the little tiles around. It seems as if a solution should exist in all cases, but in some situations, a bad starting point can result in a situation that has no solution.

Mathematicians such as Sam Loyd often use puzzles to demonstrate complex math problems, some of which have no solution today. Visiting these sites is fun because you not only get some free entertainment but also, food for thought. The issues that these puzzles raise do have practical applications, but they’re presented in a fun way.