Midwest Theory (of Computing) Day at Purdue University

I’ll be giving a talk at Purdue University on Saturday, May 3 as part of the 65th Midwest Theory Day. If any readers happen to live in West Lafayette, Indiana and are interested in hearing about some of my recent research, you can register for free by April 28 (one week from today). Lunch and snacks are provided, and the other talks will certainly be interesting too.

Here’s the title and abstract for my talk:

Resilient Coloring and Other Combinatorial Problems

A good property of a problem instance is that it’s easy to solve. And even better property is resilience: that the instance remains easy to solve under arbitrary (but minor) perturbations. We informally define the resilience of an instance of a combinatorial problem, and discuss recent work on resilient promise problems, including resilient satisfiability and resilient graph coloring.
Hope to see you there!
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Where Math ∩ Programming is Headed

This week is Spring break at UI Chicago. While I’ll be spending most of it working, it does give me some downtime to reflect. We’ve come pretty far, dear reader, in these almost three years. I learned, you learned. We all laughed. My blog has become my infinite source of entertainment and an invaluable tool for synthesizing my knowledge.

But the more I write the more ideas I have for articles, and this has been accelerating. I’m currently sitting on 55 unfinished drafts ranging from just a title and an idea to an almost-completed post. A lot of these ideas have long chains of dependencies (I can’t help myself but write on all the background math I can stomach before I do the applications). So one day I decided to draw up a little dependency graph to map out my coarse future plans. Here it is:

A map of most of my current plans for blog posts and series, and their relationships to one another. Click to enlarge.

A map of most of my current plans for blog posts and series, and their relationships to one another. Click to enlarge.

Now all you elliptic curve fanatics can rest assured I’ll continue working that series to completion before starting on any of these big projects. This map basically gives a rough picture of things I’ve read about, studied, and been interested in over the past two years that haven’t already made it onto this blog. Some of the nodes represent passed milestones in my intellectual career, while others represent topics yet to be fully understood. Note very few specific applications are listed here (e.g., what might I use SVM to classify?), but I do have ideas for a lot of them. And note that these are very long term plans, some of which are likely never to come to fruition.

So nows your chance to speak up. What do you want to read about? What do you think is missing?

Want to make a great puzzle game? Get inspired by theoretical computer science.

Two years ago, Erik Demaine and three other researchers published a fun paper to the arXiv proving that most incarnations of classic nintendo games are NP-hard. This includes almost every Super Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong, and Pokemon title. Back then I wrote a blog post summarizing the technical aspects of their work, and even gave a talk on it to a room full of curious undergraduate math majors.

But while bad tech-writers tend to interpret NP-hard as “really really hard,” the truth is more complicated. It’s really a statement about computational complexity, which has a precise mathematical formulation. Sparing the reader any technical details, here’s what NP-hard implies for practical purposes:

You should abandon hope of designing an algorithm that can solve any instance of your NP-hard problem, but many NP-hard problems have efficient practical “good-enough” solutions.

The very definition of NP-hard means that NP-hard problems need only be hard in the worst case. For illustration, the fact that Pokemon is NP-hard boils down to whether you can navigate a vastly complicated maze of trainers, some of whom are guaranteed to defeat you. It has little to do with the difficulty of the game Pokemon itself, and everything to do with whether you can stretch some subset of the game’s rules to create a really bad worst-case scenario.

So NP-hardness has very little to do with human playability, and it turns out that in practice there are plenty of good algorithms for winning at Super Mario Brothers. They work really well at beating levels designed for humans to play, but we are highly confident that they would fail to win in the worst-case levels we can cook up. Why don’t we know it for a fact? Well that’s the P \ne NP conjecture.

Since Demaine’s paper (and for a while before it) a lot of popular games have been inspected under the computational complexity lens. Recently, Candy Crush Saga was proven to be NP-hard, but the list doesn’t stop with bad mobile apps. This paper of Viglietta shows that Pac-man, Tron, Doom, Starcraft, and many other famous games all contain NP-hard rule-sets. Games like Tetris are even known to have strong hardness-of-approximation bounds. Many board games have also been studied under this lens, when you generalize them to an n \times n sized board. Chess and checkers are both what’s called EXP-complete. A simplified version of Go fits into a category called PSPACE-complete, but with the general ruleset it’s believed to be EXP-complete [1]. Here’s a list of some more classic games and their complexity status.

So we have this weird contrast: lots of NP-hard (and worse!) games have efficient algorithms that play them very well (checkers is “solved,” for example), but in the worst case we believe there is no efficient algorithm that will play these games perfectly. We could ask, “We can still write algorithms to play these games well, so what’s the point of studying their computational complexity?”

I agree with the implication behind the question: it really is just pointless fun. The mathematics involved is the very kind of nuanced manipulations that hackers enjoy: using the rules of a game to craft bizarre gadgets which, if the player is to surpass them, they must implicitly solve some mathematical problem which is already known to be hard.

But we could also turn the question right back around. Since all of these great games have really hard computational hardness properties, could we use theoretical computer science, and to a broader extent mathematics, to design great games? I claim the answer is yes.

[1] EXP is the class of problems solvable in exponential time (where the exponent is the size of the problem instance, say n for a game played on an n \times n board), so we’re saying that a perfect Chess or Checkers solver could be used to solve any problem that can be solved in exponential time. PSPACE is strictly smaller (we think; this is open): it’s the class of all problems solvable if you are allowed as much time as you want, but only a polynomial amount of space to write down your computations. 

A Case Study: Greedy Spiders

Greedy spiders is a game designed by the game design company Blyts. In it, you’re tasked with protecting a set of helplessly trapped flies from the jaws of a hungry spider.

A screenshot from Greedy Spiders.

A screenshot from Greedy Spiders. Click to enlarge.

In the game the spider always moves in discrete amounts (between the intersections of the strands of spiderweb) toward the closest fly. The main tool you have at your disposal is the ability to destroy a strand of the web, thus prohibiting the spider from using it. The game proceeds in rounds: you cut one strand, the spider picks a move, you cut another, the spider moves, and so on until the flies are no longer reachable or the spider devours a victim.

Aside from being totally fun, this game is obviously mathematical. For the reader who is familiar with graph theory, there’s a nice formalization of this problem.

The Greedy Spiders Problem: You are given a graph G_0 = (V, E_0) and two sets S_0, F \subset V denoting the locations of the spiders and flies, respectively. There is a fixed algorithm A that the spiders use to move. An instance of the game proceeds in rounds, and at the beginning of each round we call the current graph G_i = (V, E_i) and the current location of the spiders S_i. Each round has two steps:

  1. You pick an edge e \in E_i to delete, forming the new graph G_{i+1} = (V, E_i).
  2. The spiders jointly compute their next move according to A, and each spider moves to an adjacent vertex. Thus S_i becomes S_{i+1}.

Your task is to decide whether there is a sequence of edge deletions which keeps S_t and F disjoint for all t \geq 0. In other words, we want to find a sequence of edge deletions that disconnects the part of the graph containing the spiders from the part of the graph containing the flies.

This is a slightly generalized version of Greedy Spiders proper, but there are some interesting things to note. Perhaps the most obvious question is about the algorithm A. Depending on your tastes you could make it adversarial, devising the smartest possible move at every step of the way. This is just as hard as asking if there is any algorithm that the spiders can use to win. To make it easier, A could be an algorithm represented by a small circuit to which the player has access, or, as it truly is in the Greedy Spiders game, it could be the greedy algorithm (and the player can exploit this).

Though I haven’t heard of the Greedy Spiders problem in the literature by any other name, it seems quite likely that it would arise naturally. One can imagine the spiders as enemies traversing a network (a city, or a virus in a computer network), and your job is to hinder their movement toward high-value targets. Perhaps people in the defense industry could use a reasonable approximation algorithm for this problem. I have little doubt that this game is NP-hard [2], but the purpose of this article is not to prove new complexity results. The point is that this natural theoretical problem is a really fun game to play! And the game designer’s job is to do what game designers love to do: add features and design levels that are fun to play.

Indeed the Greedy Spiders folks did just that: their game features some 70-odd levels, many with multiple spiders and additional tools for the player. Some examples of new tools are: the ability to delete a vertex of the graph and the ability to place a ‘decoy-fly’ which is (to the greedy-algorithm-following spiders) indistinguishable from a real fly. They player is usually given only one or two uses of these tools per level, but one can imagine that the puzzles become a lot richer.

[2]: In the adversarial case it smells like it’s PSPACE-complete, being very close to known PSPACE-hard problems like Cops and Robbers and Generalized Geography

Examples

I can point to a number of interesting problems that I can imagine turning into successful games, and I will in a moment, but before I want to make it clear that I don’t propose game developers study theoretical computer science just to turn our problems into games verbatim. No, I imagine that the wealth of problems in computer science can serve as inspiration, as a spring board into a world of interesting gameplay mechanics and puzzles. The bonus for game designers is that adding features usually makes problems harder and more interesting, and you don’t need to know anything about proofs or the details of the reductions to understand the problems themselves (you just need familiarity with the basic objects of consideration, sets, graphs, etc).

For a tangential motivation, I imagine that students would be much more willing to do math problems if they were based on ideas coming from really fun games. Indeed, people have even turned the stunningly boring chore of drawing an accurate graph of a function into a game that kids seem to enjoy. I could further imagine a game that teaches programming by first having a student play a game (based on a hard computational problem) and then write simple programs that seek to do well. Continuing with the spiders example they could play as the defender, and then switch to the role of the spider by writing the algorithm the spiders follow.

But enough rambling! Here is a short list of theoretical computer science problems for which I see game potential. None of them have, to my knowledge, been turned into games, but the common features among them all are the huge potential for creative extensions and interesting level design.

Graph Coloring

Graph coloring is one of the oldest NP-complete problems known. Given a graph G and a set of colors \{ 1, 2, \dots, k \}, one seeks to choose colors for the vertices of G so that no edge connects two vertices of the same color.

coloring

Now coloring a given graph would be a lame game, so let’s spice it up. Instead of one player trying to color a graph, have two players. They’re given a k-colorable graph (say, k is 3), and they take turns coloring the vertices. The first player’s goal is to arrive at a correct coloring, while the second player tries to force the first player to violate the coloring condition (that no adjacent vertices are the same color). No player is allowed to break the coloring if they have an option. Now change the colors to jewels or vegetables or something, and you have yourself an award-winning game! (Or maybe: Epic Cartographer Battles of History)

An additional modification: give the two players a graph that can’t be colored with k colors, and the first player to color a monochromatic edge is the loser. Add additional move types (contracting edges or deleting vertices, etc) to taste.

Art Gallery Problem

Given a layout of a museum, the art gallery problem is the problem of choosing the minimal number of cameras so as to cover the whole museum.

artgallery

This is a classic problem in computational geometry, and is well-known to be NP-hard. In some variants (like the one pictured above) the cameras are restricted to being placed at corners. Again, this is the kind of game that would be fun with multiple players. Rather than have perfect 360-degree cameras, you could have an angular slice of vision per camera. Then one player chooses where to place the cameras (getting exponentially more points for using fewer cameras), and the opponent must traverse from one part of the museum to the other avoiding the cameras. Make the thief a chubby pig stealing eggs from birds and you have yourself a franchise.

For more spice, allow the thief some special tactics like breaking through walls and the ability to disable a single camera.

This idea has of course been the basis of many single-player stealth games (where the guards/cameras are fixed by the level designer), but I haven’t seen it done as a multiplayer game. This also brings to mind variants like the recent Nothing to Hide, which counterintuitively pits you as both the camera placer and the hero: you have to place cameras in such a way that you’re always in vision as you move about to solve puzzles. Needless to say, this fruit still has plenty of juice for the squeezing.

Pancake Sorting

Pancake sorting is the problem of sorting a list of integers into ascending order by using only the operation of a “pancake flip.”

panackesortJust like it sounds, a pancake flip involves choosing an index in the list and flipping the prefix of the list (or suffix, depending on your orientation) like a spatula flips a stack of pancakes. Now I think sorting integers is boring (and it’s not NP-hard!), but when you forget about numbers and that one special configuration (ascending sorted order), things get more interesting. Instead, have the pancakes be letters and have the goal be to use pancake flips to arrive at a real English word. That is, you don’t know the goal word ahead of time, so it’s the anagram problem plus finding an efficient pancake flip to get there. Have a player’s score be based on the number of flips before a word is found, and make it timed to add extra pressure, and you have yourself a classic!

The level design then becomes finding good word scrambles with multiple reasonable paths one could follow to get valid words. My mother would probably play this game!

Bin Packing

Young Mikio is making sushi for his family! He’s got a table full of ingredients of various sizes, but there is a limit to how much he can fit into each roll. His family members have different tastes, and so his goal is to make everyone as happy as possible with his culinary skills and the options available to him.

Another name for this problem is bin packing. There are a collection of indivisible objects of various sizes and values, and a set of bins to pack them in. Your goal is to find the packing that doesn’t exceed the maximum in any bin and maximizes the total value of the packed goods.

binpacking

I thought of sushi because I recently played a ridiculously cute game about sushi (thanks to my awesome friend Yen over at Baking And Math), but I can imagine other themes that suggest natural modifications of the problem. The objects being packed could be two-dimensional, there could be bonuses for satisfying certain family members (or penalties for not doing so!), or there could be a super knife that is able to divide one object in half.

I could continue this list for quite a while, but perhaps I should keep my best ideas to myself in case any game companies want to hire me as a consultant. :)

Do you know of games that are based on any of these ideas? Do you have ideas for features or variations of the game ideas listed above? Do you have other ideas for how to turn computational problems into games? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Until next time!

Introducing Elliptic Curves

With all the recent revelations of government spying and backdoors into cryptographic standards, I am starting to disagree with the argument that you should never roll your own cryptography. Of course there are massive pitfalls and very few people actually need home-brewed cryptography, but history has made it clear that blindly accepting the word of the experts is not an acceptable course of action. What we really need is more understanding of cryptography, and implementing the algorithms yourself is the best way to do that. [1]

For example, the crypto community is quickly moving away from the RSA standard (which we covered in this blog post). Why? It turns out that people are getting just good enough at factoring integers that secure key sizes are getting too big to be efficient. Many experts have been calling for the security industry to switch to Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC), because, as we’ll see, the problem appears to be more complex and hence achieves higher security with smaller keys. Considering the known backdoors placed by the NSA into certain ECC standards, elliptic curve cryptography is a hot contemporary issue. If nothing else, understanding elliptic curves allows one to understand the existing backdoor.

I’ve seen some elliptic curve primers floating around with all the recent talk of cryptography, but very few of them seem to give an adequate technical description [2], and legible implementations designed to explain ECC algorithms aren’t easy to find (I haven’t found any).

So in this series of posts we’re going to get knee deep in a mess of elliptic curves and write a full implementation. If you want motivation for elliptic curves, or if you want to understand how to implement your own ECC, or you want to understand the nuts and bolts of an existing implementation, or you want to know some of the major open problems in the theory of elliptic curves, this series is for you.

The series will have the following parts:

  1. Elliptic curves as elementary equations
  2. The algebraic structure of elliptic curves
  3. Points on elliptic curves as Python objects
  4. Elliptic curves over finite fields
    1. Finite fields primer (just mathematics)
    2. Programming with finite fields
    3. Back to elliptic curves
  5. Diffie-Hellman key exchange
  6. Shamir-Massey-Omura encryption and Digital Signatures

Along the way we’ll survey a host of mathematical topics as needed, including group theory, projective geometry, and the theory of cryptographic security. We won’t assume any familiarity with these topics ahead of time, but we do intend to develop some maturity through the post without giving full courses on the side-topics. When appropriate, we’ll refer to the relevant parts of the many primers this blog offers.

A list of the posts in the series (as they are published) can be found on the Main Content page. And as usual all programs produced in the making of this series will be available on this blog’s Github page.

The first post will be published on Monday 2014-02-10. Hope you enjoy it!

[1] Okay, what people usually mean is that you shouldn’t use your own cryptography for things that actually matter, but I think a lot of the warnings are interpreted or extended to, “Don’t bother implementing cryptographic algorithms, just understand them at a fuzzy high level.” I imagine this results in fewer resources for people looking to learn cryptography and the mathematics behind it, and at least it prohibits them from appreciating how much really goes into an industry-strength solution. And this mindset is what made the NSA backdoor so easy: the devil was in the details.
[2] From my heavily biased standpoint as a mathematician.