Can there be an algorithm for every human desire?

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Posted March 26, 2013


The travelling salesman problem still defies the most powerful computers (Image: Quentin Bertoux/Agence Vu)

Lance Fortnow shows how an esoteric mathematical problem has deep implications for our future in The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the search for the impossible.

It seems as if computers can do almost anything. Serve up the world’s knowledge in an instant? No problem. Simulate a human brain? Working on it.

But are there some tasks that computers will never be able to perform, no matter how powerful they become? This question forms the basis of one of the most important problems in computer science and mathematics, known by the esoteric name: P versus NP.

The definition of this problem is tricky and technical, but in The Golden Ticket, Lance Fortnow cleverly sidesteps the issue with a boiled-down version. P is the collection of problems we can solve quickly, NP is the collection of problems we would like to solve. If P = NP, computers can answer all the questions we pose and our world is changed forever.

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