Google Code Jam 2018: Saving The Universe Again

During last week I’ve learned about a Code Jam hub in our University. The idea is to meet up and participate in the Google Code Jam 2018 . I ended up participating and advancing into the first round, so I thought I’d share my solutions here for anybody interested. (And for me for further reference)

Task 1: Saving The Universe Again (Link)

An alien robot is shooting a beam that will destroy all algorithms knowledge (not sure how an algorithm can have knowledge, but lets not get philosophical).

The beam starts with strength of 1 and follows a given sequence of actions (string with two literals “S” and “C”). Whenever it shoots “S” it deals damage equal to it’s current strength and whenever it charges “C” the strength is doubled. The sequence “SCSS” would thus deal 5 damage.

You have a shield that can absorb D damage (humanity needs the D!) and can swap any two adjacent literals in the string. What is the minimal number of swaps to reduce the damage dealt to a number <= D? (If impossible return “IMPOSSIBLE”)

You can understand this problem as a tree search (again! gives you a competitive advantage to know these things). The state is the current string and it’s children are all the new states that result from swapping in different places. For each such state you can calculate the damage. To find the closest node to the root node that has damage <= D a possibility is to use simple breadth first search.

Breaching from my usual style I will post the code first and then talk about it below. This is the pure, unmodified code I submitted during the hub, so it is intentionally left a bit messy. It’s still fairly readable though … It’s python and it’s short.

Note: This will work for “small” sequences and is too inefficient for large ones. The branching factor of the tree is len(sequence)-1 which can be up to 30. I timed out on the second (big) test, because I didn’t optimize this part.

Pure breadth first search on a tree with branching factor >10 is generally not a good idea. As such I’ve implemented the search using a queue rather then choosing a recursive approach. This allows to better scale the code as ideas for run time optimization come in.

By optimization I mean pruning of nodes that are clearly disadvantageous. One example is in line 32 where I keep a dictionary of nodes that have been visited. If I encounter the same state again, I already know a shorter path to it; thus I can safely ignore it. To be honest, I should have done the weeding out directly in get_nodes to reduce constant overhead.

Another optimization, which I didn’t implement, would be to see that this is a convex problem. There is exactly one clear minimum (S[…]SC[…]C) and one clear maximum (C[…]CS[…]S) along the border of the problem and there are no local optima in between. Thus, we can ignore all swaps that increase the damage or keep it constant, i.e. “SS”, “SC”, “CC”, and focus on those that swap “CS” into “SC”. This will severely decrease the branching factor. (Note: We already ignore “SS” and “CC” as part of above optimization)

Another consequence of this is that we can swap the queue type from a FIFO (i.e. breadth first) into a priority queue, sorting by current damage dealt choosing the node with lowest damage as the next node. This is essentially Dijkstra’s algorithm (as we don’t use a heuristic, otherwise it would be A*). It keeps amazing me again and again how easily you can swap between different tree searches by simply changing the queue type.

Applying those three optimizations should cut down search time by enough to cope with the big test. It also gets very close to the other solutions I’ve seen; that is “pass over the string back to front and switch all “CS” into “SC”. Repeat until no change was made for an entire sweep of the string and then output the total number of swaps. My approach is simply more formal and can be applied to other problems more easily.

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