CS 101

Computer Science Theory



  • Reference sheet and cover page are available
  • Covers everything in the course through today's lecture
  • Questions are similar to the homeworks: mix of code and short answers
  • In class, in room 420-41 (same as lecture)

Plan for Today

Today, we're discussing the theory of computer science

  • Are there problems computers can't solve?
  • What is an algorithm? What makes a "good" algorithm?
  • Picture Contest!

Alan Turing

Source: Wikipedia
  • Developed the Universal Turing Machine to prove that some problems are unsolvable
  • Broke Enigma encryption
  • Turing Test in Artificial Intelligence
  • Turing Award ("Nobel Prize of CS") named after him

Turing Machines

Source: Keith Schwarz
  • Abstraction (representation) of a computer
  • Anything computable can be computed with a Turing Machine
  • Idea: Infinite "tape" (memory)
  • Move from one state (circle) to another by following the arrows and changing the memory as specified
  • Accept or reject input - answers yes or no questions
  • Anything we can do with computers we can do with Turing Machines

Turing Machine Fun

Google Doodle commemorating Alan Turing's 100th birthday

Idea: the "code" can change the input

Unsolvable Problems

  • Turing machines can simulate running other Turing Machines (just like your computer can pretend to act as another computer)
  • We use this fact to prove that we can never definitively say that a program will end
  • Result: not all problems are solvable!
  • Another undecidable problem: finding the cheapest sequence of flights for a trip

"Good" Algorithms

  • Algorithm: way to solve a problem
  • Two main resources: time and space (memory)
  • Good algorithms run faster with respect to input size
    • Getting the red value of a pixel always takes the same amount of time (constant)
    • Green screen: double the width and height of the image, quadruple the number of pixels to look at (polynomial)
    • Listing all the two digit numbers takes one-tenth the time as listing all the three digit numbers (exponential)

Algorithms in practice: Search

  • We want to see if a certain value is in a sorted list of elements
  • Could look through all the values one by one (polynomial)
  • Binary Search
    • Look at the middle value
    • Only need to look at the left values if it's too big
    • Only need to look at the right values if it's too large

Algorithms in practice: Sorting

  • Bogosort: randomly pick all the elements, then check if the list is in order (really, really slow)
  • Insertion Sort: Add the elements one-by-one
  • Bucket sort: pick categories for the data, then put each item in one of those buckets
    • Commonly used with exams
    • Idea: faster if we relax our definition of "sorted"

P vs. NP

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia
  • Biggest unsolved question in Computer Science (million dollar prize)
  • Basic idea: is it just as fast to solve a problem (NP) as it is to check that the solution is correct (P)?

P ≠ NP: Implications

  • Encryption would break (we'll talk about this more in a couple weeks)
  • Much better optimization (everything's faster!)
  • Better transportation layouts


  • Abstractions can help computer scientists think about problems differently.
  • Some problems in computer science don't have any solutions (computers are not all-powerful).
  • Some problems don't have any "good" solutions.
  • There are lots of ways to solve problems! Computer scientists constantly try to find better ways.