# Zero Knowledge Proofs for NP

Last time, we saw a specific zero-knowledge proof for graph isomorphism. This introduced us to the concept of an interactive proof, where you have a prover and a verifier sending messages back and forth, and the prover is trying to prove a specific claim to the verifier.

A zero-knowledge proof is a special kind of interactive proof in which the prover has some secret piece of knowledge that makes it very easy to verify a disputed claim is true. The prover’s goal, then, is to convince the verifier (a polynomial-time algorithm) that the claim is true without revealing any knowledge at all about the secret.

In this post we’ll see that, using a bit of cryptography, zero-knowledge proofs capture a much wider class of problems than graph isomorphism. Basically, if you believe that cryptography exists, every problem whose answers can be easily verified have zero-knowledge proofs (i.e., all of the class NP). Here are a bunch of examples. For each I’ll phrase the problem as a question, and then say what sort of data the prover’s secret could be.

• Given a boolean formula, is there an assignment of variables making it true? Secret: a satisfying assignment to the variables.
• Given a set of integers, is there a subset whose sum is zero? Secret: such a subset.
• Given a graph, does it have a 3-coloring? Secret: a valid 3-coloring.
• Given a boolean circuit, can it produce a specific output? Secret: a choice of inputs that produces the output.

The common link among all of these problems is that they are NP-hard (graph isomorphism isn’t known to be NP-hard). For us this means two things: (1) we think these problems are actually hard, so the verifier can’t solve them, and (2) if you show that one of them has a zero-knowledge proof, then they all have zero-knowledge proofs.

We’re going to describe and implement a zero-knowledge proof for graph 3-colorability, and in the next post we’ll dive into the theoretical definitions and talk about the proof that the scheme we present is zero-knowledge. As usual, all of the code used in making this post is available in a repository on this blog’s Github page. In the follow up to this post, we’ll dive into more nitty gritty details about the proof that this works, and study different kinds of zero-knowledge.

## One-way permutations

In a recent program gallery post we introduced the Blum-Blum-Shub pseudorandom generator. A pseudorandom generator is simply an algorithm that takes as input a short random string of length $s$ and produces as output a longer string, say, of length $3s$. This output string should not be random, but rather “indistinguishable” from random in a sense we’ll make clear next time. The underlying function for this generator is the “modular squaring” function $x \mapsto x^2 \mod M$, for some cleverly chosen $M$. The $M$ is chosen in such a way that makes this mapping a permutation. So this function is more than just a pseudorandom generator, it’s a one-way permutation.

If you have a primality-checking algorithm on hand (we do), then preparing the Blum-Blum-Shub algorithm is only about 15 lines of code.

def goodPrime(p):
return p % 4 == 3 and probablyPrime(p, accuracy=100)

def findGoodPrime(numBits=512):
candidate = 1

while not goodPrime(candidate):
candidate = random.getrandbits(numBits)

return candidate

def makeModulus(numBits=512):
return findGoodPrime(numBits) * findGoodPrime(numBits)

def blum_blum_shub(modulusLength=512):
modulus = makeModulus(numBits=modulusLength)

def f(inputInt):
return pow(inputInt, 2, modulus)

return f


The interested reader should check out the proof gallery post for more details about this generator. For us, having a one-way permutation is the important part (and we’re going to defer the formal definition of “one-way” until next time, just think “hard to get inputs from outputs”).

The other concept we need, which is related to a one-way permutation, is the notion of a hardcore predicate. Let $G(x)$ be a one-way permutation, and let $f(x) = b$ be a function that produces a single bit from a string. We say that $f$ is a hardcore predicate for $G$ if you can’t reliably compute $f(x)$ when given only $G(x)$.

Hardcore predicates are important because there are many one-way functions for which, when given the output, you can guess part of the input very reliably, but not the rest (e.g., if $g$ is a one-way function, $(x, y) \mapsto (x, g(y))$ is also one-way, but the $x$ part is trivially guessable). So a hardcore predicate formally measures, when given the output of a one-way function, what information derived from the input is hard to compute.

In the case of Blum-Blum-Shub, one hardcore predicate is simply the parity of the input bits.

def parity(n):
return sum(int(x) for x in bin(n)[2:]) % 2


## Bit Commitment Schemes

A core idea that will makes zero-knowledge proofs work for NP is the ability for the prover to publicly “commit” to a choice, and later reveal that choice in a way that makes it infeasible to fake their commitment. This will involve not just the commitment to a single bit of information, but also the transmission of auxiliary data that is provably infeasible to fake.

Our pair of one-way permutation $G$ and hardcore predicate $f$ comes in very handy. Let’s say I want to commit to a bit $b \in \{ 0,1 \}$. Let’s fix a security parameter that will measure how hard it is to change my commitment post-hoc, say $n = 512$. My process for committing is to draw a random string $x$ of length $n$, and send you the pair $(G(x), f(x) \oplus b)$, where $\oplus$ is the XOR operator on two bits.

The guarantee of a one-way permutation with a hardcore predicate is that if you only see $G(x)$, you can’t guess $f(x)$ with any reasonable edge over random guessing. Moreover, if you fix a bit $b$, and take an unpredictably random bit $y$, the XOR $b \oplus y$ is also unpredictably random. In other words, if $f(x)$ is hardcore, then so is $x \mapsto f(x) \oplus b$ for a fixed bit $b$. Finally, to reveal my commitment, I just send the string $x$ and let you independently compute $(G(x), f(x) \oplus b)$. Since $G$ is a permutation, that $x$ is the only $x$ that could have produced the commitment I sent you earlier.

Here’s a Python implementation of this scheme. We start with a generic base class for a commitment scheme.

class CommitmentScheme(object):
def __init__(self, oneWayPermutation, hardcorePredicate, securityParameter):
'''
oneWayPermutation: int -> int
hardcorePredicate: int -> {0, 1}
'''
self.oneWayPermutation = oneWayPermutation
self.hardcorePredicate = hardcorePredicate
self.securityParameter = securityParameter

# a random string of length self.securityParameter used only once per commitment
self.secret = self.generateSecret()

def generateSecret(self):
raise NotImplemented

def commit(self, x):
raise NotImplemented

def reveal(self):
return self.secret


Note that the “reveal” step is always simply to reveal the secret. Here’s the implementation subclass. We should also note that the security string should be chosen at random anew for every bit you wish to commit to. In this post we won’t reuse CommitmentScheme objects anyway.

class BBSBitCommitmentScheme(CommitmentScheme):
def generateSecret(self):
# the secret is a random quadratic residue
self.secret = self.oneWayPermutation(random.getrandbits(self.securityParameter))
return self.secret

def commit(self, bit):
unguessableBit = self.hardcorePredicate(self.secret)
return (
self.oneWayPermutation(self.secret),
unguessableBit ^ bit,  # python xor
)


One important detail is that the Blum-Blum-Shub one-way permutation is only a permutation when restricted to quadratic residues. As such, we generate our secret by shooting a random string through the one-way permutation to get a random residue. In fact this produces a uniform random residue, since the Blum-Blum-Shub modulus is chosen in such a way that ensures every residue has exactly four square roots.

Here’s code to check the verification is correct.

class BBSBitCommitmentVerifier(object):
def __init__(self, oneWayPermutation, hardcorePredicate):
self.oneWayPermutation = oneWayPermutation
self.hardcorePredicate = hardcorePredicate

def verify(self, securityString, claimedCommitment):
trueBit = self.decode(securityString, claimedCommitment)
unguessableBit = self.hardcorePredicate(securityString)  # wasteful, whatever
return claimedCommitment == (
self.oneWayPermutation(securityString),
unguessableBit ^ trueBit,  # python xor
)

def decode(self, securityString, claimedCommitment):
unguessableBit = self.hardcorePredicate(securityString)
return claimedCommitment[1] ^ unguessableBit


and an example of using it

if __name__ == "__main__":
import blum_blum_shub
securityParameter = 10
oneWayPerm = blum_blum_shub.blum_blum_shub(securityParameter)
hardcorePred = blum_blum_shub.parity

print('Bit commitment')
scheme = BBSBitCommitmentScheme(oneWayPerm, hardcorePred, securityParameter)
verifier = BBSBitCommitmentVerifier(oneWayPerm, hardcorePred)

for _ in range(10):
bit = random.choice([0, 1])
commitment = scheme.commit(bit)
secret = scheme.reveal()
trueBit = verifier.decode(secret, commitment)
valid = verifier.verify(secret, commitment)

print('{} == {}? {}; {} {}'.format(bit, trueBit, valid, secret, commitment))


Example output:

1 == 1? True; 524 (5685, 0)
1 == 1? True; 149 (22201, 1)
1 == 1? True; 476 (34511, 1)
1 == 1? True; 927 (14243, 1)
1 == 1? True; 608 (23947, 0)
0 == 0? True; 964 (7384, 1)
0 == 0? True; 373 (23890, 0)
0 == 0? True; 620 (270, 1)
1 == 1? True; 926 (12390, 0)
0 == 0? True; 708 (1895, 0)


As an exercise, write a program to verify that no other input to the Blum-Blum-Shub one-way permutation gives a valid verification. Test it on a small security parameter like $n=10$.

It’s also important to point out that the verifier needs to do some additional validation that we left out. For example, how does the verifier know that the revealed secret actually is a quadratic residue? In fact, detecting quadratic residues is believed to be hard! To get around this, we could change the commitment scheme reveal step to reveal the random string that was used as input to the permutation to get the residue (cf. BBSCommitmentScheme.generateSecret for the random string that needs to be saved/revealed). Then the verifier could generate the residue in the same way. As an exercise, upgrade the bit commitment an verifier classes to reflect this.

In order to get a zero-knowledge proof for 3-coloring, we need to be able to commit to one of three colors, which requires two bits. So let’s go overkill and write a generic integer commitment scheme. It’s simple enough: specify a bound on the size of the integers, and then do an independent bit commitment for every bit.

class BBSIntCommitmentScheme(CommitmentScheme):
def __init__(self, numBits, oneWayPermutation, hardcorePredicate, securityParameter=512):
'''
A commitment scheme for integers of a prespecified length numBits. Applies the
Blum-Blum-Shub bit commitment scheme to each bit independently.
'''
self.schemes = [BBSBitCommitmentScheme(oneWayPermutation, hardcorePredicate, securityParameter)
for _ in range(numBits)]
super().__init__(oneWayPermutation, hardcorePredicate, securityParameter)

def generateSecret(self):
self.secret = [x.secret for x in self.schemes]
return self.secret

def commit(self, integer):
# first pad bits to desired length
integer = bin(integer)[2:].zfill(len(self.schemes))
bits = [int(bit) for bit in integer]
return [scheme.commit(bit) for scheme, bit in zip(self.schemes, bits)]


And the corresponding verifier

class BBSIntCommitmentVerifier(object):
def __init__(self, numBits, oneWayPermutation, hardcorePredicate):
self.verifiers = [BBSBitCommitmentVerifier(oneWayPermutation, hardcorePredicate)
for _ in range(numBits)]

def decodeBits(self, secrets, bitCommitments):
return [v.decode(secret, commitment) for (v, secret, commitment) in
zip(self.verifiers, secrets, bitCommitments)]

def verify(self, secrets, bitCommitments):
return all(
bitVerifier.verify(secret, commitment)
for (bitVerifier, secret, commitment) in
zip(self.verifiers, secrets, bitCommitments)
)

def decode(self, secrets, bitCommitments):
decodedBits = self.decodeBits(secrets, bitCommitments)
return int(''.join(str(bit) for bit in decodedBits))


A sample usage:

if __name__ == "__main__":
import blum_blum_shub
securityParameter = 10
oneWayPerm = blum_blum_shub.blum_blum_shub(securityParameter)
hardcorePred = blum_blum_shub.parity

print('Int commitment')
scheme = BBSIntCommitmentScheme(10, oneWayPerm, hardcorePred)
verifier = BBSIntCommitmentVerifier(10, oneWayPerm, hardcorePred)
choices = list(range(1024))
for _ in range(10):
theInt = random.choice(choices)
commitments = scheme.commit(theInt)
secrets = scheme.reveal()
trueInt = verifier.decode(secrets, commitments)
valid = verifier.verify(secrets, commitments)

print('{} == {}? {}; {} {}'.format(theInt, trueInt, valid, secrets, commitments))


And a sample output:

527 == 527? True; [25461, 56722, 25739, 2268, 1185, 18226, 46375, 8907, 54979, 23095] [(29616, 0), (342, 1), (54363, 1), (63975, 0), (5426, 0), (9124, 1), (23973, 0), (44832, 0), (33044, 0), (68501, 0)]
67 == 67? True; [25461, 56722, 25739, 2268, 1185, 18226, 46375, 8907, 54979, 23095] [(29616, 1), (342, 1), (54363, 1), (63975, 1), (5426, 0), (9124, 1), (23973, 1), (44832, 1), (33044, 0), (68501, 0)]
729 == 729? True; [25461, 56722, 25739, 2268, 1185, 18226, 46375, 8907, 54979, 23095] [(29616, 0), (342, 1), (54363, 0), (63975, 1), (5426, 0), (9124, 0), (23973, 0), (44832, 1), (33044, 1), (68501, 0)]
441 == 441? True; [25461, 56722, 25739, 2268, 1185, 18226, 46375, 8907, 54979, 23095] [(29616, 1), (342, 0), (54363, 0), (63975, 0), (5426, 1), (9124, 0), (23973, 0), (44832, 1), (33044, 1), (68501, 0)]
614 == 614? True; [25461, 56722, 25739, 2268, 1185, 18226, 46375, 8907, 54979, 23095] [(29616, 0), (342, 1), (54363, 1), (63975, 1), (5426, 1), (9124, 1), (23973, 1), (44832, 0), (33044, 0), (68501, 1)]
696 == 696? True; [25461, 56722, 25739, 2268, 1185, 18226, 46375, 8907, 54979, 23095] [(29616, 0), (342, 1), (54363, 0), (63975, 0), (5426, 1), (9124, 0), (23973, 0), (44832, 1), (33044, 1), (68501, 1)]
974 == 974? True; [25461, 56722, 25739, 2268, 1185, 18226, 46375, 8907, 54979, 23095] [(29616, 0), (342, 0), (54363, 0), (63975, 1), (5426, 0), (9124, 1), (23973, 0), (44832, 0), (33044, 0), (68501, 1)]
184 == 184? True; [25461, 56722, 25739, 2268, 1185, 18226, 46375, 8907, 54979, 23095] [(29616, 1), (342, 1), (54363, 0), (63975, 0), (5426, 1), (9124, 0), (23973, 0), (44832, 1), (33044, 1), (68501, 1)]
136 == 136? True; [25461, 56722, 25739, 2268, 1185, 18226, 46375, 8907, 54979, 23095] [(29616, 1), (342, 1), (54363, 0), (63975, 0), (5426, 0), (9124, 1), (23973, 0), (44832, 1), (33044, 1), (68501, 1)]
632 == 632? True; [25461, 56722, 25739, 2268, 1185, 18226, 46375, 8907, 54979, 23095] [(29616, 0), (342, 1), (54363, 1), (63975, 1), (5426, 1), (9124, 0), (23973, 0), (44832, 1), (33044, 1), (68501, 1)]


Before we move on, we should note that this integer commitment scheme “blows up” the secret by quite a bit. If you have a security parameter $s$ and an integer with $n$ bits, then the commitment uses roughly $sn$ bits. A more efficient method would be to simply use a good public-key encryption scheme, and then reveal the secret key used to encrypt the message. While we implemented such schemes previously on this blog, I thought it would be more fun to do something new.

## A zero-knowledge proof for 3-coloring

First, a high-level description of the protocol. The setup: the prover has a graph $G$ with $n$ vertices $V$ and $m$ edges $E$, and also has a secret 3-coloring of the vertices $\varphi: V \to \{ 0, 1, 2 \}$. Recall, a 3-coloring is just an assignment of colors to vertices (in this case the colors are 0,1,2) so that no two adjacent vertices have the same color.

So the prover has a coloring $\varphi$ to be kept secret, but wants to prove that $G$ is 3-colorable. The idea is for the verifier to pick a random edge $(u,v)$, and have the prover reveal the colors of $u$ and $v$. However, if we run this protocol only once, there’s nothing to stop the prover from just lying and picking two distinct colors. If we allow the verifier to run the protocol many times, and the prover actually reveals the colors from their secret coloring, then after roughly $|V|$ rounds the verifier will know the entire coloring. Each step reveals more knowledge.

We can fix this with two modifications.

1. The prover first publicly commits to the coloring using a commitment scheme. Then when the verifier asks for the colors of the two vertices of a random edge, he can rest assured that the prover fixed a coloring that does not depend on the verifier’s choice of edge.
2. The prover doesn’t reveal colors from their secret coloring, but rather from a random permutation of the secret coloring. This way, when the verifier sees colors, they’re equally likely to see any two colors, and all the verifier will know is that those two colors are different.

So the scheme is: prover commits to a random permutation of the true coloring and sends it to the verifier; the verifier asks for the true colors of a given edge; the prover provides those colors and the secrets to their commitment scheme so the verifier can check.

The key point is that now the verifier has to commit to a coloring, and if the coloring isn’t a proper 3-coloring the verifier has a reasonable chance of picking an improperly colored edge (a one-in-$|E|$ chance, which is at least $1/|V|^2$). On the other hand, if the coloring is proper, then the verifier will always query a properly colored edge, and it’s zero-knowledge because the verifier is equally likely to see every pair of colors. So the verifier will always accept, but won’t know anything more than that the edge it chose is properly colored. Repeating this $|V|^2$-ish times, with high probability it’ll have queried every edge and be certain the coloring is legitimate.

Let’s implement this scheme. First the data types. As in the previous post, graphs are represented by edge lists, and a coloring is represented by a dictionary mapping a vertex to 0, 1, or 2 (the “colors”).

# a graph is a list of edges, and for simplicity we'll say
# every vertex shows up in some edge
exampleGraph = [
(1, 2),
(1, 4),
(1, 3),
(2, 5),
(2, 5),
(3, 6),
(5, 6)
]

exampleColoring = {
1: 0,
2: 1,
3: 2,
4: 1,
5: 2,
6: 0,
}


Next, the Prover class that implements that half of the protocol. We store a list of integer commitment schemes for each vertex whose color we need to commit to, and send out those commitments.

class Prover(object):
def __init__(self, graph, coloring, oneWayPermutation=ONE_WAY_PERMUTATION, hardcorePredicate=HARDCORE_PREDICATE):
self.graph = [tuple(sorted(e)) for e in graph]
self.coloring = coloring
self.vertices = list(range(1, numVertices(graph) + 1))
self.oneWayPermutation = oneWayPermutation
self.hardcorePredicate = hardcorePredicate
self.vertexToScheme = None

def commitToColoring(self):
self.vertexToScheme = {
v: commitment.BBSIntCommitmentScheme(
2, self.oneWayPermutation, self.hardcorePredicate
) for v in self.vertices
}

permutation = randomPermutation(3)
permutedColoring = {
v: permutation[self.coloring[v]] for v in self.vertices
}

return {v: s.commit(permutedColoring[v])
for (v, s) in self.vertexToScheme.items()}

def revealColors(self, u, v):
u, v = min(u, v), max(u, v)
if not (u, v) in self.graph:
raise Exception('Must query an edge!')

return (
self.vertexToScheme[u].reveal(),
self.vertexToScheme[v].reveal(),
)


In commitToColoring we randomly permute the underlying colors, and then compose that permutation with the secret coloring, committing to each resulting color independently. In revealColors we reveal only those colors for a queried edge. Note that we don’t actually need to store the permuted coloring, because it’s implicitly stored in the commitments.

It’s crucial that we reject any query that doesn’t correspond to an edge. If we don’t reject such queries then the verifier can break the protocol! In particular, by querying non-edges you can determine which pairs of nodes have the same color in the secret coloring. You can then chain these together to partition the nodes into color classes, and so color the graph. (After seeing the Verifier class below, implement this attack as an exercise).

Here’s the corresponding Verifier:

class Verifier(object):
def __init__(self, graph, oneWayPermutation, hardcorePredicate):
self.graph = [tuple(sorted(e)) for e in graph]
self.oneWayPermutation = oneWayPermutation
self.hardcorePredicate = hardcorePredicate
self.committedColoring = None
self.verifier = commitment.BBSIntCommitmentVerifier(2, oneWayPermutation, hardcorePredicate)

def chooseEdge(self, committedColoring):
self.committedColoring = committedColoring
self.chosenEdge = random.choice(self.graph)
return self.chosenEdge

def accepts(self, revealed):
revealedColors = []

for (w, bitSecrets) in zip(self.chosenEdge, revealed):
trueColor = self.verifier.decode(bitSecrets, self.committedColoring[w])
revealedColors.append(trueColor)
if not self.verifier.verify(bitSecrets, self.committedColoring[w]):
return False

return revealedColors[0] != revealedColors[1]


As expected, in the acceptance step the verifier decodes the true color of the edge it queried, and accepts if and only if the commitment was valid and the edge is properly colored.

Here’s the whole protocol, which is syntactically very similar to the one for graph isomorphism.

def runProtocol(G, coloring, securityParameter=512):
oneWayPermutation = blum_blum_shub.blum_blum_shub(securityParameter)
hardcorePredicate = blum_blum_shub.parity

prover = Prover(G, coloring, oneWayPermutation, hardcorePredicate)
verifier = Verifier(G, oneWayPermutation, hardcorePredicate)

committedColoring = prover.commitToColoring()
chosenEdge = verifier.chooseEdge(committedColoring)

revealed = prover.revealColors(*chosenEdge)
revealedColors = (
verifier.verifier.decode(revealed[0], committedColoring[chosenEdge[0]]),
verifier.verifier.decode(revealed[1], committedColoring[chosenEdge[1]]),
)
isValid = verifier.accepts(revealed)

print("{} != {} and commitment is valid? {}".format(
revealedColors[0], revealedColors[1], isValid
))

return isValid


And an example of running it

if __name__ == "__main__":
for _ in range(30):
runProtocol(exampleGraph, exampleColoring, securityParameter=10)


Here’s the output

0 != 2 and commitment is valid? True
1 != 0 and commitment is valid? True
1 != 2 and commitment is valid? True
2 != 0 and commitment is valid? True
1 != 2 and commitment is valid? True
2 != 0 and commitment is valid? True
0 != 2 and commitment is valid? True
0 != 2 and commitment is valid? True
0 != 1 and commitment is valid? True
0 != 1 and commitment is valid? True
2 != 1 and commitment is valid? True
0 != 2 and commitment is valid? True
2 != 0 and commitment is valid? True
2 != 0 and commitment is valid? True
1 != 0 and commitment is valid? True
1 != 0 and commitment is valid? True
0 != 2 and commitment is valid? True
2 != 1 and commitment is valid? True
0 != 2 and commitment is valid? True
0 != 2 and commitment is valid? True
2 != 1 and commitment is valid? True
1 != 0 and commitment is valid? True
1 != 0 and commitment is valid? True
2 != 1 and commitment is valid? True
2 != 1 and commitment is valid? True
1 != 0 and commitment is valid? True
0 != 2 and commitment is valid? True
1 != 2 and commitment is valid? True
1 != 2 and commitment is valid? True
0 != 1 and commitment is valid? True


So while we haven’t proved it rigorously, we’ve seen the zero-knowledge proof for graph 3-coloring. This automatically gives us a zero-knowledge proof for all of NP, because given any NP problem you can just convert it to the equivalent 3-coloring problem and solve that. Of course, the blowup required to convert a random NP problem to 3-coloring can be polynomially large, which makes it unsuitable for practice. But the point is that this gives us a theoretical justification for which problems have zero-knowledge proofs in principle. Now that we’ve established that you can go about trying to find the most efficient protocol for your favorite problem.

## Anticipatory notes

When we covered graph isomorphism last time, we said that a simulator could, without participating in the zero-knowledge protocol or knowing the secret isomorphism, produce a transcript that was drawn from the same distribution of messages as the protocol produced. That was all that it needed to be “zero-knowledge,” because anything the verifier could do with its protocol transcript, the simulator could do too.

We can do exactly the same thing for 3-coloring, exploiting the same “reverse order” trick where the simulator picks the random edge first, then chooses the color commitment post-hoc.

Unfortunately, both there and here I’m short-changing you, dear reader. The elephant in the room is that our naive simulator assumes the verifier is playing by the rules! If you want to define security, you have to define it against a verifier who breaks the protocol in an arbitrary way. For example, the simulator should be able to produce an equivalent transcript even if the verifier deterministically picks an edge, or tries to pick a non-edge, or tries to send gibberish. It takes a lot more work to prove security against an arbitrary verifier, but the basic setup is that the simulator can no longer make choices for the verifier, but rather has to invoke the verifier subroutine as a black box. (To compensate, the requirements on the simulator are relaxed quite a bit; more on that next time)

Because an implementation of such a scheme would involve a lot of validation, we’re going to defer the discussion to next time. We also need to be more specific about the different kinds of zero-knowledge, since we won’t be able to achieve perfect zero-knowledge with the simulator drawing from an identical distribution, but rather a computationally indistinguishable distribution.

We’ll define all this rigorously next time, and discuss the known theoretical implications and limitations. Next time will be cuffs-off theory, baby!

Until then!

# The Complexity of Communication

One of the most interesting questions posed in the last thirty years of computer science is to ask how much “information” must be communicated between two parties in order for them to jointly compute something. One can imagine these two parties living on distant planets, so that the cost of communicating any amount of information is very expensive, but each person has an integral component of the answer that the other does not.

Since this question was originally posed by Andrew Yao in 1979, it has led to a flurry of applications in many areas of mathematics and computer science. In particular it has become a standard tool for proving lower bounds in many settings such as circuit design and streaming algorithms. And if there’s anything theory folks love more than a problem that can be solved by an efficient algorithm, it’s a proof that a problem cannot be solved by any efficient algorithm (that’s what I mean by “lower bound”).

Despite its huge applicability, the basic results in this area are elementary. In this post we’ll cover those basics, but once you get past these basic ideas and their natural extensions you quickly approach the state of the art and open research problems. Attempts to tackle these problems in recent years have used sophisticated techniques in Fourier analysis, Ramsey theory, and geometry. This makes it a very fun and exciting field.

As a quick side note before we start, the question we’re asking is different from the one of determining the information content of a specific message. That is the domain of information theory, which was posed (and answered) decades earlier. Here we’re trying to determine the complexity of a problem, where more complex messages require more information about their inputs.

## The Basic Two-Player Model

The most basic protocol is simple enough to describe over a dinner table. Alice and Bob each have one piece of information $x,y$, respectively, say they each have a number. And together they want to compute some operation that depends on both their inputs, for example whether $x > y$. But in the beginning Alice has access only to her number $x$, and knows nothing about $y$. So Alice sends Bob a few bits. Depending on the message Bob computes something and replies, and this repeats until they have computed an answer. The question is: what is the minimum number of bits they need to exchange in order for both of them to be able to compute the right answer?

There are a few things to clarify here: we’re assuming that Alice and Bob have agreed on a protocol for sending information before they ever saw their individual numbers. So imagine ten years earlier Alice and Bob were on the same planet, and they agreed on the rules they’d follow for sending/replying information once they got their numbers. In other words, we’re making a worst-case assumption on Alice and Bob’s inputs, and as usual it will be measured as a function of $n$, the lengths of their inputs. Then we take a minimum (asymptotically) over all possible protocols they could follow, and this value is the “communication complexity” of the problem. Computing the exact communication complexity of a given problem is no simple task, since there’s always the nagging question of whether there’s some cleverer protocol than the one you came up with. So most of the results are bounds on the communication complexity of a problem.

Indeed, we can give our first simple bound for the “$x$ greater than $y$” problem we posed above. Say the strings $x,y$ both have $n$ bits. What Alice does is send her entire string $x$ to Bob, and Bob then computes the answer and sends the answer bit back to Alice. This requires $n + 1$ bits of communication. This proves that the communication complexity of “$x > y$” is bounded from above by $n+1$. A much harder question is, can we do any better?

To make any progress on upper or lower bounds we need to be a bit more formal about the communication model. Basically, the useful analysis happens when the players alternate sending single bits, and this is only off by small constant factors from a more general model. This is the asymptotic analysis, that we only distinguish between things like linear complexity $O(n)$ versus sublinear options like $\log(n)$ or $\sqrt{n}$ or even constant complexity $O(1)$. Indeed, the protocol we described for $x > y$ is the stupidest possible protocol for the problem, and it’s actually valid for any problem. For this problem it happens to be optimal, but we’re just trying to emphasize that nontrivial bounds are all sub-linear in the size of the inputs.

On to the formal model.

Definition: player is a computationally unbounded Turing machine.

And we really mean unbounded. Our players have no time or space constraints, and if they want they can solve undecidable problems like the halting problem or computing Kolmogorov complexity. This is to emphasize that the critical resource is the amount of communication between players. Moreover, it gives us a hint that lower bounds in this model won’t come form computational intractability, but instead will be “information-theoretic.”

Definition: Let $\Sigma^*$ be the set of all binary strings. A communication protocol is a pair of functions $A,B: \Sigma^* \times \Sigma^* \to \{ 0,1 \}$.

The input to these functions $A(x, h)$ should be thought of as follows: $x$ is the player’s secret input and $h$ is the communication history so far. The output is the single bit that they will send in that round (which can be determined by the length of $h$ since only one bit is sent in each round). The protocol then runs by having Alice send $b_1 = A(x, \{ \})$ to Bob, then Bob replies with $b_2 = B(y, b_1)$, Alice continues with $b_3 = A(x, b_1b_2)$, and so on. We implicitly understand that the content of a communication protocol includes a termination condition, but we’ll omit this from the notation. We call the length of the protocol the number of rounds.

Definition: A communication protocol $A,B$ is said to be valid for a boolean function $f(x,y)$ if for all strings $x, y$, the protocol for $A, B$ terminates on some round $t$ with $b_t = 1$ if and only if $f(x,y) = 1$.

So to define the communication complexity, we let the function $L_{A,B}(n)$ be the maximum length of the protocol $A, B$ when run on strings of length $n$ (the worst-case for a given input size). Then the communication complexity of a function $f$ is the minimum of $L_{A,B}$ over all valid protocols $A, B$. In symbols,

$\displaystyle CC_f(n) = \min_{A,B \textup{ is valid for } f} L_{A,B}(n)$

We will often abuse the notation by writing the communication complexity of a function as $CC(f)$, understanding that it’s measured asymptotically as a function of $n$.

## Matrices and Lower Bounds

Let’s prove a lower bound, that to compute the equality function you need to send a linear number of bits in the worst case. In doing this we’ll develop a general algebraic tool.

So let’s write out the function $f$ as a binary matrix $M(f)$ in the following way. Write all $2^n$ inputs of length $n$ in some fixed order along the rows and columns of the matrix, and let entry $i,j$ be the value of $f(i,j)$. For example, the 6-bit function $f$ which computes whether the majority of the two player’s bits are ones looks like this:

The key insight to remember is that if the matrix of a function has a nice structure, then one needs very little communication to compute it. Let’s see why.

Say in the first round the row player sends a bit $b$. This splits the matrix into two submatrices $A_0, A_1$ by picking the rows of $A_0$ to be those inputs for which the row player sends a $b=0$, and likewise for $A_1$ with $b=1$. If you’re willing to rearrange the rows of the matrix so that $A_0$ and $A_1$ stack on top of each other, then this splits the matrix into two rectangles. Now we can switch to the column player and see which bit he sends in reply to each of the possible choices for $b$ (say he sends back $b'$). This separately splits each of $A_0, A_1$ into two subrectangles corresponding to which inputs for the column player make him send the specific value of $b'$. Continuing in this fashion we recurse until we find a submatrix consisting entirely of ones or entirely of zeros, and then we can say with certainty what the value of the function $f$ is.

It’s difficult to visualize because every time we subdivide we move around the rows and columns within the submatrix corresponding to the inputs for each player. So the following would be a possible subdivision of an 8×8 matrix (with the values in the rectangles denoting which communicated bits got you there), but it’s sort of a strange one because we didn’t move the inputs around at all. It’s just a visual aid.

If we do this for $t$ steps we get $2^t$ subrectangles. A crucial fact is that any valid communication protocol for a function has to give a subdivision of the matrix where all the rectangles are constant. or else there would be two pairs of inputs $(x,y), (x', y')$, which are labeled identically by the communication protocol, but which have different values under $f$.

So naturally one expects the communication complexity of $f$ would require as many steps as there are steps in the best decomposition, that is, the decomposition with the fewest levels of subdivision. Indeed, we’ll prove this and introduce some notation to make the discourse less clumsy.

Definition: For an $m \times n$ matrix $M$, a rectangle is a submatrix $A \times B$ where $A \subset \{ 1, \dots m \}, B \subset \{ 1, \dots, n \}$. A rectangle is called monochromatic if all entires in the corresponding submatrix $\left.M\right|_{A \times B}$ are the same. A monochromatic tiling of $M$ is a partition of $M$ into disjoint monochromatic rectangles. Define $\chi(f)$ to be the minimum number of rectangles in any monochromatic tiling of $M(f)$.

As we said, if there are $t$ steps in a valid communication protocol for $f$, then there are $2^t$ rectangles in the corresponding monochromatic tiling of $M(f)$. Here is an easy consequence of this.

Proposition: If $f$ has communication complexity $CC(f)$, then there is a monochromatic tiling of $M(f)$ with at most $2^{CC(f)}$ rectangles. In particular, $\log(\chi(f)) \leq CC(f)$.

Proof. Pick any protocol that achieves the communication complexity of $f$, and apply the process we described above to subdivide $M(f)$. This will take exactly $CC(f)$, and produce no more than $2^{CC(f)}$ rectangles.

$\square$

This already gives us a bunch of theorems. Take the EQ function, for example. Its matrix is the identity matrix, and it’s not hard to see that every monochromatic tiling requires $2^n$ rectangles, one for each entry of the diagonal. I.e., $CC(EQ) \geq n$. But we already know that one player can just send all his bits, so actually $CC(EQ) = \Theta(n)$. Now it’s not always so easy to compute $\chi(f)$. The impressive thing to do is to use efficiently computable information about $M(f)$ to give bounds on $\chi(f)$ and hence on $CC(f)$. So can we come up with a better lower bound that depends on something we can compute? The answer is yes.

Theorem: For every function $f$, $\chi(f) \geq \textup{rank }M(f)$.

Proof. This just takes some basic linear algebra. One way to think of the rank of a matrix $A$ is as the smallest way to write $A$ as a linear combination of rank 1 matrices (smallest as in, the smallest number of terms needed to do this). The theorem is true no matter which field you use to compute the rank, although in this proof and in the rest of this post we’ll use the real numbers.

If you give me a monochromatic tiling by rectangles, I can view each rectangle as a matrix whose rank is at most one. If the entries are all zeros then the rank is zero, and if the entries are all ones then (using zero elsewhere) this is by itself a rank 1 matrix. So adding up these rectangles as separate components gives me an upper bound on the rank of $A$. So the minimum way to do this is also an upper bound on the rank of $A$.

$\square$

Now computing something like $CC(EQ)$ is even easier, because the rank of $M(EQ) = M(I_{2^n})$ is just $2^n$.

## Upper Bounds

There are other techniques to show lower bounds that are stronger than the rank and tiling method (because they imply the rank and tiling method). See this survey for a ton of details. But I want to discuss upper bounds a bit, because the central open conjecture in communication complexity is an upper bound.

The Log-Rank Conjecture: There is a universal constant $c$, such that for all $f$, the communication complexity $CC(f) = O((\log \textup{rank }M(f))^c)$.

All known examples satisfy the conjecture, but unfortunately the farthest progress toward the conjecture is still exponentially worse than the conjecture’s statement. In 1997 the record was due to Andrei Kotlov who proved that $CC(f) \leq \log(4/3) \textup{rank }M(f)$. It was not until 2013 that any (unconditional) improvements were made to this, when Shachar Lovett proved that $CC(f) = O(\sqrt{\textup{rank }M(f)} \cdot \log \textup{rank }M(f))$.

The interested reader can check out this survey of Shachar Lovett from earlier this year (2014) for detailed proofs of these theorems and a discussion of the methods. I will just discuss one idea from this area that ties in nicely with our discussion: which is that finding an efficient communication protocol for a low-rank function $f$ reduces to finding a large monochromatic rectangle in $M(f)$.

Theorem [Nisan-Wigderson 94]: Let $c(r)$ be a function. Suppose that for any function $f: X \times Y \to \{ 0,1 \}$, we can find a monochromatic rectangle of size $R \geq 2^{-c(r)} \cdot | X \times Y |$ where $r = \textup{rank }M(f)$. Then any such $f$ is computable by a deterministic protocol with communication complexity.

$\displaystyle O \left ( \log^2(r) + \sum_{i=0}^{\log r} c(r/2^i) \right )$

Just to be concrete, this says that if $c(r)$ is polylogarithmic, then finding these big rectangles implies a protocol also with polylogarithmic complexity. Since the complexity of the protocol is a function of $r$ alone, the log-rank conjecture follows as a consequence. The best known results use the theorem for larger $c(r) = r^b$ for some $b < 1$, which gives communication complexity also $O(r^b)$.

The proof of the theorem is detailed, but mostly what you’d expect. You take your function, split it up into the big monochromatic rectangle and the other three parts. Then you argue that when you recurse to one of the other three parts, either the rank is cut in half, or the size of the matrix is much smaller. In either case, you can apply the theorem once again. Then you bound the number of leaves in the resulting protocol tree by looking at each level $i$ where the rank has dropped to $r/2^i$. For the full details, see page 4 of the Shachar survey.

## Multiple Players and More

In the future we’ll cover some applications of communication complexity, many of which are related to computing in restricted models such as parallel computation and streaming computation. For example, in parallel computing you often have processors which get arbitrary chunks of data as input and need to jointly compute something. Lower bounds on the communication complexity can help you prove they require a certain amount of communication in order to do that.

But in these models there are many players. And the type of communication matters: it can be point-to-point or broadcast, or something more exotic like MapReduce. So before we can get to these applications we need to define and study the appropriate generalizations of communication complexity to multiple interacting parties.

Until then!

# On the Computational Complexity of MapReduce

I recently wrapped up a fun paper with my coauthors Ben Fish, Adam Lelkes, Lev Reyzin, and Gyorgy Turan in which we analyzed the computational complexity of a model of the popular MapReduce framework. Check out the preprint on the arXiv. Update: this paper is now published in the proceedings of DISC2015.

As usual I’ll give a less formal discussion of the research here, and because the paper is a bit more technically involved than my previous work I’ll be omitting some of the more pedantic details. Our project started after Ben Moseley gave an excellent talk at UI Chicago. He presented a theoretical model of MapReduce introduced by Howard Karloff et al. in 2010, and discussed his own results on solving graph problems in this model, such as graph connectivity. You can read Karloff’s original paper here, but we’ll outline his model below.

Basically, the vast majority of the work on MapReduce has been algorithmic. What I mean by that is researchers have been finding more and cleverer algorithms to solve problems in MapReduce. They have covered a huge amount of work, implementing machine learning algorithms, algorithms for graph problems, and many others. In Moseley’s talk, he posed a question that caught our eye:

Is there a constant-round MapReduce algorithm which determines whether a graph is connected?

After we describe the model below it’ll be clear what we mean by “solve” and what we mean by “constant-round,” but the conjecture is that this is impossible, particularly for the case of sparse graphs. We know we can solve it in a logarithmic number of rounds, but anything better is open.

In any case, we started thinking about this problem and didn’t make much progress. To the best of my knowledge it’s still wide open. But along the way we got into a whole nest of more general questions about the power of MapReduce. Specifically, Karloff proved a theorem relating MapReduce to a very particular class of circuits. What I mean is he proved a theorem that says “anything that can be solved in MapReduce with so many rounds and so much space can be solved by circuits that are yae big and yae complicated, and vice versa.”

But this question is so specific! We wanted to know: is MapReduce as powerful as polynomial time, our classical notion of efficiency (does it equal P)? Can it capture all computations requiring logarithmic space (does it contain L)? MapReduce seems to be somewhere in between, but it’s exact relationship to these classes is unknown. And as we’ll see in a moment the theoretical model uses a novel communication model, and processors that never get to see the entire input. So this led us to a host of natural complexity questions:

1. What computations are possible in a model of parallel computation where no processor has enough space to store even one thousandth of the input?
2. What computations are possible in a model of parallel computation where processors can’t request or send specific information from/to other processors?
3. How the hell do you prove that something can’t be done under constraints of this kind?
4. How do you measure the increase of power provided by giving MapReduce additional rounds or additional time?

These questions are in the domain of complexity theory, and so it makes sense to try to apply the standard tools of complexity theory to answer them. Our paper does this, laying some brick for future efforts to study MapReduce from a complexity perspective.

In particular, one of our theorems is the following:

Theorem: Any problem requiring sublogarithmic space $o(\log n)$ can be solved in MapReduce in two rounds.

This theorem is nice for two reasons. First is it’s constructive. If you give me a problem and I know it classically takes less than logarithmic space, then this gives an automatic algorithm to implement it in MapReduce, and if you were so inclined you could even automate the process of translating a classical algorithm to a MapReduce algorithm (it’s not pretty, but it’s possible). One example of such a useful problem is string searching: if you give me a fixed regex, I can search a large corpus for matches to that regex in actually constant space, and hence in MapReduce in two rounds.

Our other results are a bit more esoteric. We relate the questions about MapReduce to old, deep questions about computations that have simultaneous space and time bounds. In the end we give a (conditional, nonconstructive) answer to question 4 above, which I’ll sketch without getting too deep in the details. It’s interesting despite the conditionalness and nonconstructiveness because it’s the first result of its kind for MapReduce.

So let’s start with the model of Karloff et al., which they named “MRC” for MapReduce Class.

## The MRC Model of Karloff et al.

MapReduce is a programming paradigm which is intended to make algorithm design for distributed computing easier. Specifically, when you’re writing massively distributed algorithms by hand, you spend a lot of time and effort dealing with really low-level questions. Like, what do I do if a processor craps out in the middle of my computation? Or, what’s the most efficient way to broadcast a message to all the processors, considering the specific topology of my network layout means the message will have to be forwarded? These are questions that have nothing to do with the actual problem you’re trying to solve.

So the designers of MapReduce took a step back, analyzed the class of problems they were most often trying to solve (turns out, searching, sorting, and counting), and designed their framework to handle all of the low-level stuff automatically. The catch is that the algorithm designer now has to fit their program into the MapReduce paradigm, which might be hard.

In designing a MapReduce algorithm, one has to implement two functions: a mapper and a reducer. The mapper takes a list of key-value pairs, and applies some operation to each element independently (just like the map function in most functional programming languages). The reducer takes a single key and a list of values for that key, and outputs a new list of values with the same key. And then the MapReduce protocol iteratively applies mappers and reducers in rounds to the input data. There are a lot of pictures of this protocol on the internet. Here’s one

Image source: ibm.com

An interesting part of this protocol is that the reducers never get to communicate with each other, except indirectly through the mappers in the next round. MapReduce handles the implied grouping and message passing, as well as engineering issues like fault-tolerance and load balancing. In this sense, the mappers and reducers are ignorant cogs in the machine, so it’s interesting to see how powerful MapReduce is.

The model of Karloff, Suri, and Vassilvitskii is a relatively straightforward translation of this protocol to mathematics. They make a few minor qualifications, though, the most important of which is that they encode a bound on the total space used. In particular, if the input has size $n$, they impose that there is some $\varepsilon > 0$ for which every reducer uses space $O(n^{1 - \varepsilon})$. Moreover, the number of reducers in any round is also bounded by $O(n^{1 - \varepsilon})$.

We can formalize all of this with a few easy definitions.

Definition: An input to a MapReduce algorithm is a list of key-value pairs $\langle k_i,v_i \rangle_{i=1}^N$ of total size $n = \sum_{i=1}^N |k_i| + |v_i|$.

For binary languages (e.g., you give me a binary string $x$ and you want to know if there are an odd number of 1’s), we encode a string $x \in \{ 0,1 \}^m$ as the list $\langle x \rangle := \langle i, x_i \rangle_{i=1}^n$. This won’t affect any of our space bounds, because the total blowup from $m = |x|$ to $n = |\langle x \rangle |$ is logarithmic.

Definition: A mapper $\mu$ is a Turing machine which accepts as input a single key-value pair $\langle k, v \rangle$ and produces as output a list of key-value pairs $\langle k_1', v'_1 \rangle, \dots, \langle k'_s, v'_s \rangle$.

Definition: reducer $\rho$ is a Turing machine which accepts as input a key $k$ and a list of values $v_1, \dots, v_m$ and produces as output the same key and a new list of values $v'_1, \dots, v'_M$.

Now we can describe the MapReduce protocol, i.e. what a program is and how to run it. I copied this from our paper because the notation is the same so far.

The MRC protocol

All we’ve done here is just describe the MapReduce protocol in mathematics. It’s messier than it is complicated. The last thing we need is the space bounds.

Definition: A language $L$ is in $\textup{MRC}[f(n), g(n)]$ if there is a constant $0 < c < 1$ and a sequence of mappers and reducers $\mu_1, \rho_1, \mu_2, \rho_2, \dots$ such that for all $x \in \{ 0,1 \}^n$ the following is satisfied:

1. Letting $R = O(f(n))$ and $M = (\mu_1, \rho_1, \dots, \mu_R, \rho_R)$, $M$ accepts $x$ if and only if $x \in L$.
2. For all $1 \leq r \leq R$, $\mu_r, \rho_r$ use $O(n^c)$ space and $O(g(n))$ time.
3. Each $\mu_r$ outputs $O(n^c)$ keys in round $r$.

To be clear, the first argument to $\textup{MRC}[f(n), g(n)]$ is the round bound, and the second argument is the time bound. The last point implies the bound on the number of processors. Since we are often interested in a logarithmic number of rounds, we can define

$\displaystyle \textup{MRC}^i = \textup{MRC}[\log^i(n), \textup{poly}(n)]$

So we can restate the question from the beginning of the post as,

Is graph connectivity in $\textup{MRC}^0$?

Here there’s a bit of an issue with representation. You have to show that if you’re just given a binary string representing a graph, that you can translate that into a reasonable key-value description of a graph in a constant number of rounds. This is possible, and gives evidence that the key-value representation is without loss of generality for all intents and purposes.

## A Pedantic Aside

If our goal is to compare MRC with classes like polynomial time (P) and logarithmic space (L), then the definition above has a problem. Specifically the definition above allows one to have an infinite list of reducers, where each one is potentially different, and the actual machine that is used depends on the input size. In formal terminology, MRC as defined above is a nonuniform model of computation.

Indeed, we give a simple proof that this is a problem by showing any unary language is in $\textup{MRC}^1$ (which is where many of the MRC algorithms in recent years have been). For those who don’t know, this is a problem because you can encode versions of the Halting problem as a unary language, and the Halting problem is undecidable. We don’t want our model to be able to solve undecidable problems!

While this level of pedantry might induce some eye-rolling, it is necessary in order to make statements like “MRC is contained in P.” It’s simply not true for the nonuniform model above. To fix this problem we refined the MRC model to a uniform version. The details are not trivial, but also not that interesting. Check out the paper if you want to know exactly how we do it. It doesn’t have that much of an effect on the resulting analysis. The only important detail is that now we’re representing the entire MRC machine as a single Turing machine. So now, unlike before, any MRC machine can be written down as a finite string, and there are infinitely many strings representing a specific MRC machine. We call our model MRC, and Karloff’s model nonuniform MRC.

You can also make randomized versions of MRC, but we’ll stick to the deterministic version here.

## Sublogarithmic Space

Now we can sketch the proof that sublogarithmic space is in $\textup{MRC}^0$. In fact, the proof is simpler for regular languages (equivalent to constant space algorithms) being in $\textup{MRC}^0$. The idea is as follows:

A regular language is one that can be decided by a DFA, say $G$ (a graph representing state transitions as you read a stream of bits). And the DFA is independent of the input size, so every mapper and reducer can have it encoded into them. Now what we’ll do is split the input string up in contiguous chunks of size $O(\sqrt{n})$ among the processors (mappers can do this just fine). Now comes the trick. We have each reducer compute, for each possible state $s$ in $G$, what the ending state would be if the DFA had started in state $s$ after processing their chunk of the input. So the output of reducer $j$ would be an encoding of a table of the form:

$\displaystyle s_1 \to T_j(s_1) \\ s_2 \to T_j(s_2) \\ \vdots \\ s_{|S|} \to T_j(s_{|S|})$

And the result would be a lookup table of intermediate computation results. So each reducer outputs their part of the table (which has constant size). Since there are only $O(\sqrt{n})$ reducers, all of the table pieces can fit on a single reducer in the second round, and this reducer can just chain the functions together from the starting state and output the answer.

The proof for sublogarithmic space has the same structure, but is a bit more complicated because one has to account for the tape of a Turing machine which has size $o(\log n)$. In this case, you split up the tape of the Turing machine among the processors as well. And then you have to keep track of a lot more information. In particular, each entry of your function has to look like

“if my current state is A and my tape contents are B and the tape head starts on side C of my chunk of the input”

then

“the next time the tape head would leave my chunk, it will do so on side C’ and my state will be A’ and my tape contents will be B’.”

As complicated as it sounds, the size of one of these tables for one reducer is still less than $n^c$ for some $c < 1/2$. And so we can do the same trick of chaining the functions together to get the final answer. Note that this time the chaining will be adaptive, because whether the tape head leaves the left or right side will determine which part of the table you look at next. And moreover, we know the chaining process will stop in polynomial time because we can always pick a Turing machine to begin with that will halt in polynomial time (i.e., we know that L is contained in P).

The size calculations are also just large enough to stop us from doing the same trick with logarithmic space. So that gives the obvious question: is $\textup{L} \subset \textup{MRC}^0$? The second part of our paper shows that even weaker containments are probably very hard to prove, and they relate questions about MRC to the problem of L vs P.

## Hierarchy Theorems

This part of the paper is where we go much deeper into complexity theory than I imagine most of my readers are comfortable with. Our main theorem looks like this:

Theorem: Assume some conjecture is true. Then for every $a, b > 0$, there is are bigger $c > a, d > b$ such that the following hold:

$\displaystyle \textup{MRC}[n^a, n^b] \subsetneq \textup{MRC}[n^c, n^b],$
$\displaystyle \textup{MRC}[n^a, n^b] \subsetneq \textup{MRC}[n^a, n^d].$

This is a kind of hierarchy theorem that one often likes to prove in complexity theory. It says that if you give MRC enough extra rounds or time, then you’ll get strictly more computational power.

The conjecture we depend on is called the exponential time hypothesis (ETH), and it says that the 3-SAT problem can’t be solved in $2^{cn}$ time for any $0 < c < 1$. Actually, our theorem depends on a weaker conjecture (implied by ETH), but it’s easier to understand our theorems in the context of the ETH. Because 3-SAT is this interesting problem: we believe it’s time-intensive, and yet it’s space efficient because we can solve it in linear space given $2^n$ time. This time/space tradeoff is one of the oldest questions in all of computer science, but we still don’t have a lot of answers.

For instance, define $\textup{TISP}(f(n), g(n))$ to the the class of languages that can be decided by Turing machines that have simultaneous bounds of $O(f(n))$ time and $O(g(n))$ space. For example, we just said that $\textup{3-SAT} \in \textup{TISP}(2^n, n)$, and there is a famous theorem that says that SAT is not in $\textup{TISP}(n^{1.1} n^{0.1})$; apparently this is the best we know. So clearly there are some very basic unsolved problems about TISP. An important one that we address in our paper is whether there are hierarchies in TISP for a fixed amount of space. This is the key ingredient in proving our hierarchy theorem for MRC. In particular here is an open problem:

Conjecture: For every two integers $0 < a < b$, the classes $\textup{TISP}(n^a, n)$ and $\textup{TISP}(n^b, n)$ are different.

We know this is true of time and space separately, i.e., that $\textup{TIME}(n^a) \subsetneq \textup{TIME}(n^b)$ and $\textup{SPACE}(n^a) \subsetneq \textup{SPACE}(n^b)$. but for TISP we only know that you get more power if you increase both parameters.

So we prove a theorem that address this, but falls short in two respects: it depends on a conjecture like ETH, and it’s not for every $a, b$.

Theorem: Suppose ETH holds, then for every $a > 0$ there is a $b > a$ for which $\textup{TIME}(n^a) \not \subset \textup{TISP}(n^b, n)$.

In words, this suggests that there are problems that need both $n^2$ time and $n^2$ space, but can be solved with linear space if you allow enough extra time. Since $\textup{TISP}(n^a, n) \subset \textup{TIME}(n^a)$, this gives us the hierarchy we wanted.

To prove this we take 3-SAT and give it exponential padding so that it becomes easy enough to do in polynomial TISP (and it still takes linear space, in fact sublinear), but not so easy that you can do it in $n^a$ time. It takes some more work to get from this TISP hierarchy to our MRC hierarchy, but the details are a bit much for this blog. One thing I’d like to point out is that we prove that statements that are just about MRC have implications beyond MapReduce. In particular, the last corollary of our paper is the following.

Corollary: If $\textup{MRC}[\textup{poly}(n), 1] \subsetneq \textup{MRC}[\textup{poly}(n), \textup{poly}(n)]$, then L is different from P.

In other words, if you’re afforded a polynomial number of rounds in MRC, then showing that constant time per round is weaker than polynomial time is equivalently hard to separating L from P. The theorem is true because, as it turns out, $\textup{L} \subset \textup{MRC}[textup{poly}(n), 1]$, by simulating one step of a TM across polynomially many rounds. The proof is actually not that complicated (and doesn’t depend on ETH at all), and it’s a nice demonstration that studying MRC can have implications beyond parallel computing.

The other side of the coin is also interesting. Our first theorem implies the natural question of whether $\textup{L} \subset \textup{MRC}^0$. We’d like to say that this would imply the separation of L from P, but we don’t quite get that. In particular, we know that

$\displaystyle \textup{MRC}[1, n] \subsetneq \textup{MRC}[n, n] \subset \textup{MRC}[1, n^2] \subsetneq \textup{MRC}[n^2, n^2] \subset \dots$

But at the same time we could live in a world where

$\displaystyle \textup{MRC}[1, \textup{poly}(n)] = \textup{MRC}[\textup{poly}(n), \textup{poly}(n)]$

It seems highly unlikely, but to the best of our knowledge none of our techniques prove this is not the case. If we could rule this out, then we could say that $\textup{L} \subset \textup{MRC}^0$ implies the separation of L and P. And note this would not depend on any conjectures.

## Open Problems

Our paper has a list of open problems at the end. My favorite is essentially: how do we prove better lower bounds in MRC? In particular, it would be great if we could show that some problems need a lot of rounds simply because the communication model is too restrictive, and nobody has true random access to the entire input. For example, this is why we think graph connectivity needs a logarithmic number of rounds. But as of now nobody really knows how to prove it, and it seems like we’ll need some new and novel techniques in order to do it. I only have the wisps of ideas in that regard, and it will be fun to see which ones pan out.

Until next time!

# Parameterizing the Vertex Cover Problem

I’m presenting a paper later this week at the Matheamtical Foundations of Computer Science 2014 in Budapest, Hungary. This conference is an interesting mix of logic and algorithms that aims to bring together researchers from these areas to discuss their work. And right away the first session on the first day focused on an area I know is important but have little experience with: fixed parameter complexity. From what I understand it’s not that popular of a topic at major theory conferences in the US (there appears to be only one paper on it at this year’s FOCS conference), but the basic ideas are worth knowing.

The basic idea is pretty simple: some hard computational problems become easier (read, polynomial-time solvable) if you fix some parameters involved to constants. Preferably small constants. For example, finding cliques of size $k$ in a graph is NP-hard if $k$ is a parameter, but if you fix $k$ to a constant then you can check all possible subsets of size $k$ in $O(n^k)$ time. This is kind of a silly example because there are much faster ways to find triangles than checking all $O(n^3)$ subsets of vertices, but part of the point of fixed-parameter complexity is to find the fastest algorithms in these fixed-parameter settings. Since in practice parameters are often small [citation needed], this analysis can provide useful practical algorithmic alternatives to heuristics or approximate solutions.

One important tool in the theory of fixed-parameter tractability is the idea of a kernel. I think it’s an unfortunate term because it’s massively overloaded in mathematics, but the idea is to take a problem instance with the parameter $k$, and carve out “easy” regions of the instance (often reducing $k$ as you go) until the runtime of the trivial brute force algorithm only depends on $k$ and not on the size of the input. The point is that the solution you get on this “carved out” instance is either the same as the original, or can be extended back to the original with little extra work. There is a more formal definition we’ll state, but there is a canonical example that gives a great illustration.

Consider the vertex cover problem. That is, you give me a graph $G = (V,E)$ and a number $k$ and I have to determine if there is a subset of $\leq k$ vertices of $G$ that touch all of the edges in $E$. This problem is fixed-parameter tractable because, as with $k$-clique one can just check all subsets of size $k$. The kernel approach we’ll show now is much smarter.

What you do is the following. As long as your graph has a vertex of degree $> k$, you remove it and reduce $k$ by 1. This is because a vertex of degree $> k$ will always be chosen for a vertex cover. If it’s not, then you need to include all of its neighbors to cover its edges, but there are $> k$ neighbors and your vertex cover is constrained by size $k$. And so you can automatically put this high-degree vertex in your cover, and use induction on the smaller graph.

Once you can’t remove any more vertices there are two cases. In the case that there are more than $k^2$ edges, you output that there is no vertex cover. Indeed, if you only get $k$ vertices in your cover and you removed all vertices of degree $> k$, then each can cover at most $k$ edges, giving a total of at most $k^2$. Otherwise, if there are at most $k^2$ edges, then you can remove all the isolated vertices and show that there are only $\leq 2k^2$ vertices left. This is because each edge touches only two vertices, so in the worst case they’re all distinct. This smaller subgraph is called a kernel of the vertex cover, and the fact that its size depends only on $k$ is the key. So you can look at all $2^{2k^2} = O(1)$ subsets to determine if there’s a cover of the size you want. If you find a cover of the kernel, you add back in all the large-degree vertices you deleted and you’re done.

Now, even for small $k$ this is a pretty bad algorithm ($k=5$ gives $2^{50}$ subsets to inspect), but with more detailed analysis you can do significantly better. In particular, the best known bound reduces vertex cover to a kernel of size $2k - c \log(k)$ vertices for any constant $c$ you specify. Getting $\log(k)$ vertices is known to imply P = NP, and with more detailed complexity assumptions it’s even hard to get a graph with fewer than $O(k^{2-\varepsilon})$ edges for any $\varepsilon > 0$. These are all relatively recent results whose associated papers I have not read.

Even with these hardness results, there are two reasons why this kind of analysis is useful. The first is that it gives us a clearer picture of the complexity of these problems. In particular, the reduction we showed for vertex cover gives a time $O(2^{2k^2} + n + m)$-time algorithm, which you can then compare directly to the trivial $O(n^k)$ time brute force algorithm and measure the difference. Indeed, if $k = o(\sqrt{(k/2) log(n)})$ then the kernelized approach is faster.

The second reason is that the kernel approach usually results in simple and quick checks for negative answers to a problem. In particular, if you want to check for $k$-sized set covers in a graph in the real world, this analysis shows that the first thing you should do is check if the kernel has size $> k^2$. If so, you can immediately give a “no” answer. So useful kernels can provide insight into the structure of a problem that can be turned into heuristic tools even when it doesn’t help you solve the problem exactly.

So now let’s just see the prevailing definition of a “kernelization” of a problem. This comes from the text of Downey and Fellows.

Definition: kernelization of a parameterized problem $L$ (formally, a language where each string $x$ is paired with a positive integer $k$) is a $\textup{poly}(|x|, k)$-time algorithm that converts instances $(x,k)$ into instances $(x', k')$ with the following three properties.

• $(x,k)$ is a yes instance of $L$ if and only if $(x', k')$ is.
• $|x'| \leq f(k)$ for some computable function $f: \mathbb{N} \to \mathbb{N}$.
• $k' \leq g(k)$ for some computable function $g: \mathbb{N} \to \mathbb{N}$.

The output $(x', k')$ is called a kernel, and the problem is said to admit a polynomial kernel if $f(k) = O(k^c)$ for some constant $c$.

So we showed that vertex cover admits a polynomial kernel (in fact, a quadratic one).

Now the nice theorem is that a problem is fixed-parameter tractable if and only if it admits a polynomial kernel. Finding a kernel is conceptually easier because, like in vertex cover, it allows you to introduce additional assumptions on the structure of the instances you’re working with. But more importantly from a theoretical standpoint, measuring the size and complexity of kernels for NP-hard problems gives us a way to discriminate among problems within NP. That and the chance to get some more practical tools for NP-hard problems makes parameterized complexity more interesting than it sounds at first.

Until next time!