**What is ‘Computational Complexity’ ?**

Basically a theory describing the scalability of algorithms. “As the size of the input to an algorithm increases, how do the running time and memory requirements of the algorithm change?” Wikipedia has a more complete description. Complexity can be considered in terms of;

**Time**Complexity – the number of steps that it takes to solve an instance of the problem as a function of the size of the input, using the most efficient algorithm.**Space**Complexity – the amount of space, or memory required by the algorithm.

If you consider an array with n elements, and in solving a problem on this array, it takes n times n (or n^{2}) steps. You could say the algorithm used had a complexity of n^{2}. Now with different programming languages there may be additional steps in the algorithm necessary to solve the problem. To describe a general level of complexity across any language, the Big Oh Notation is used. So the time-complexity for this algorithm would be ?(n^{2})

‘?’ basically indicates that we are ignoring any language dependent factors, allowing complexity to be expressed purely in terms of the size of the input.

**An Example**

if you take a simple problem like, finding the ‘mode’ average on an array. I.e. the most frequently occurring element in a sequence (lets say of numbers) – You could do this an number of ways. Here is a brute force attempt (in Ruby).

```
def calculate_mode(nums)
hi_count = 0
mode = nums[0]
nums.each do | search_for |
count = 0
nums.each do |num|
if search_for == num
count += 1
end
end
if count > hi_count
hi_count = count
mode = search_for
end
end
end
```

It should be obvious that this algorithm has a complexity of ?(n^{2}) – since every element of the array must be searched by each element to find the highest count value (and hence the mode).

Could it be done any faster? If the array of elements was sorted (ordered numerically) – the mode could be found by finding the longest continuing sequence in the array, that should only take n iterations. Employing a quick sort algorithm first; which can sort (on average) with ?(n log n)

```
def quicksort(a)
return a if a.size <= 1
pivot = a[0]
quicksort(a.select {|i| i < pivot }) +
a.select {|i| i == pivot } +
quicksort(a.select {|i| i > pivot })
end
def calculate_mode_fast(nums, time_start)
# sort array first
sorted_nums = quicksort(nums)
hi_count = 0
mode = nums[0]
count = 1
idx = 1
sorted_nums.each do | search_for |
if search_for == sorted_nums[idx]
count += 1
if count > hi_count
hi_count = count
mode = search_for
end
else
count = 1
end
idx += 1 if idx < sorted_nums.length
end
end
```

So we could say that this approach has (on average) a complexity of ?(n+(n log n)) which is significantly less that ?(n^{2})

I’ve posted this code listing which implements both algorithms running to compute the modal average on identical arrays of random integers. You can vary n (the number of elements) to see how each method performs. From the results (below) its clear that the 2nd algorithm is more time-efficient in this case.

```
calculate_mode
====================
mode => 3 (it occurs 44 times)
array length was 1000
num loops was 1000000
completed in 0.71737
calculate_mode_fast
=========================
mode => 3 (it occurs 44 times)
array length was 1000
num loops was 1040
completed in 0.011247
```

## 1 comment so far

## matt Apr 26, 2007

I should point out that the example is trivial. Using Ruby (or any langauge) you could easily find the mode using native language methods.

Is there another (faster) way to find the mode?