Decidability and Efficiency

Can Computers Solve Every Problem?

It probably doesn’t surprise you to hear the answer is no. However, it may surprise you to learn that this is mathematically proven to be impossible. In fact, Alan Turing, one of the most influential figures in computer science, theorized what would later become the digital computer as part of his proof.

An undecidable problem is one in which no algorithm can be constructed that always leads to a correct yes-or-no answer. Turing proved that at least one task is computationally undecidableThe Halting Problem. He proved that you cannot write a program that will tell you which computer programs will halt (i.e., exit) and which ones will continue forever (i.e., infinitely loop).

Many Ways to Solve a Problem

However, most computer scientists spend time constructing programs for problems that computers can solve. A programmer’s knowledge and skill affects how a program is developed and how it is used to solve a problem. Even so, there are often many different approaches to solving the same problem. Multiple solutions may be equally valid with no single one being exclusively better than the other. In fact, for most of the problems that you’ll encounter in your life, there is almost never just one, single way that the problem can be solved. Instead, there are almost always multiple ways of solving a given problem—some of which might be better choices than others.

Your challenge as a computational thinker is to 1) design a solution that works and 2) recognize the ways in which your algorithm can be made more efficient.


So, how do we know that one algorithmic solution is any better than another? In order to answer that question, we first need a way of measuring the relative performance that an algorithm offers. And that measurement comes down to a question of scalability. That is, how well does the algorithm perform at larger and larger scales?

For example, if we double the number of items in a list, how much harder does that make the task of finding a particular item in that list? What if we triple the size of the list? Quadruple it? What if we increase the size of the overall problem by a factor of N? How much does that increase the amount of work required by the algorithm?

Constant Logarithmic Linear Quadratic

Computer scientists use something called “Big-O Notation” (a mathematical concept we won’t get into here) to describe how well different algorithms scale. This allows them to classify different solutions into different categories of relative performance.

  • Constant: No matter how much a problem grows, the amount of work stays more or less the same.
  • Logarithmic: Every doubling of the size of a problem only requires one extra unit of work.
  • Linear: As the size of a problem grows, the amount of work required grows at approximately the same rate.
  • Quadratic: As the size of a problem grows, the amount of extra work required increases much more quickly.

Performance Comparisons

Imagine you needed to search through a list of 1,000,000 items.

If the item were toward the front of the list, Sequential Search would find the item with very few examinations. However, if the item were toward the end of the list, Sequential Search might need to look through as many as one million items! On average, depending on where the item might be located in the list, Sequential Search will require examining about 500,000 items. This is referred to as having linear performance because there is a linear relationship between the size of the problem (i.e., the total number of items you must search through) and the amount of work required to solve the problem (i.e., how many items you must actually look at before finding what you are looking for).

Compare that to Binary Search, which does not see the same one-to-one relationship between the size of the problem and the amount of work. Because of its divide-and-conquer approach, the amount of work required to find an item grows much more slowly with Binary Search than with Sequential Search. In fact, with this logarithmic behavior, you can double the total number of items in the list and it only costs one more unit of additional work. This means that if the size of the problem grows incredibly large, the amount of extra work that the algorithm will require will stay relatively small.

Problems with Scalability

Small and simple problems are often easy to solve because even an inefficient solution likely doesn’t require much work in the first place. But as problems grow larger, the efficiency of an algorithm becomes more and more important. So important that it might mean the difference between the problem even being solvable or not. Improvements in algorithms, hardware, and software increase the kinds of problems and the size of problems solvable by programming.

Case Study: Brute Forcing a Password

On the other hand, suppose law enforcement wants to develop a piece of forensics software that is intended to break the encryption on whatever data they need to investigate. The easiest solution is to take a “brute force” approach that simply tries all possible password combinations. It is essentially a Sequential Search through every possible password, which makes it a linear solution, which certainly seems like it should be a viable solution to the problem. But how well does it really scale?

In this case, it is not so much a problem with how efficiently the algorithm scales, but rather a problem with how quickly size and complexity of the problem can scale.

Imagine you have a four-digit (09) passcode, like you might have on your phone or home security system. How many possible passcodes exist? Well, if the code consists of four digits, each of which is one of 10 possible digits (09), then there are 104, or 10,000, unique combinations (0000 through 9999). A brute force approach would only need to make no more than 10,000 attempts to ensure success. Ten thousand is a lot, but trivial with the help of computational technology.

How can we make it harder to crack?

  1. Make the passcode longer.
    • Every single digit added to the length of the passcode increases the number of possibilities by a factor of 10.
  2. Increase the number of characters to use.
    • Instead of limiting the passcode to numerical digits, 0 through 9, it could use uppercase letters, lowercase letters, punctuation, symbols, emoji, etc.
Digits Characters Combinations
4 09
104 = 10,000
5 09
105 = 100,000
4 09, az
364 = 1,679,616
4 09, az, AZ
624 = 14,776,336
5 09, az, AZ
625 = 916,132,832
8 09, az, AZ
628 = 218,340,105,584,896
12 09, az, AZ
6212 = 3.2E21

Notice how quickly and easily it is to increase the size of the problem. Even just a meager, eight-digit passcode made up of alphanumeric characters (09, az, AZ) has more than 200 trillion possible combinations, meaning the brute force approach could similarly require more than 200 trillion attempts before cracking the encryption. Even at only 12 digits long, such a passcode would allow so many possible passcodes that a brute force attempt taking only 1ms per attempt would still require ten times the age of the universe. Clearly, a brute force solution does not scale well.