I still remember how I felt when I was first introduced to NP-Complete problems. Unlike the material I had learned up to that point, there seemed to be such mystery and intrigue and opportunity surrounding these problems. To use the example from Garey and Johnson’s book “Computers and Intractability: A Guide to the Theory of NP Completeness”, these were problems that not just one researcher found difficult, but that a number of researchers had been unable to find efficient algorithms to solve them. So what they did was show that the problems all had a special relationship with one another, and thus through this relationship if someone were to discover an algorithm to efficiently solve any one of these problems they would be able to efficiently solve all the problems in this class. This immediately got my mind working into a world where I, as a college student, would discover such an algorithm and be mentioned with the heavyweights of computer science like Lovelace, Babbage, Church, Turing, Cook, Karp and Dean.
Unfortunately I was a student so I did not have as much time to devote to this task as I would have liked. In my spare time though I would try to look at problems and see what kind of structure I found. One of my favorite problems was, The Clique Problem. This is a problem where we are given an undirected graph and seek to find a maximum subset of nodes in this graph that all have edges between them, i.e. a clique (Actually the NP-Complete version of this problem takes as input an undirected graph G and an integer k and asks if there is a clique in G of size k).
Although I now am more of the mindset that there do not exist efficient algorithms to solve NP-Complete problems, I thought it would be a nice project to see if I could re-create this feeling – both in myself and others. So I decided to write a program that generates a random undirected graph and asks users to try to find a maximum clique. To test users answers, I coded up an algorithm that works pretty well on smaller graphs, the Bron-Kerbosch Algorithm. This algorithm uses backtracking to find all maximal cliques, which then allows us to sort them by size and determine the largest.
Users should click on the numbers in the table below the canvas indicating the nodes they wish to select in their clique (purple indicates that the node is selected, gray indicates that it is not). Once they have a potential solution, they can press the “Check” button to see if their solution is optimal. If a user is having trouble and simply wishes to see the maximum clique, they can press the “Solve” button. And to generate a new problem, users can press the “New Problem” button.
So I hope users have fun with the clique problem puzzles, and who knows maybe someone will discover an algorithm that efficiently solves this problem and become world famous.