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Friday, December 28, 2018

A Single Cell Hints at a Solution to the Biggest Problem in Computer Science | Science - Popular Mechanics

Avery Thompson, science writer and journalist says, One small amoeba found a solution to the traveling salesman problem faster than our best algorithms. What does it know that we don't?

Photo: Popular Mechanics
One of the oldest problems in computer science was just solved by a single cell.

A group of researchers from Tokyo’s Keio University set out to use an amoeba to solve the Traveling Salesman Problem, a famous problem in computer science. The problem works like this: imagine you’re a traveling salesman flying from city to city selling your wares. You’re concerned about maximizing your efficiency to make as much money as possible, so you want to find the shortest path that will let you hit every city on your route.

There’s no simple mathematical formula to find the most efficient route for our salesman. Instead, the only way to solve the problem is to calculate the length of each route and see which one is the shortest. 

What’s worse, performing this calculation gets exponentially harder the more cities are added to the route. With four cities, there are only three different routes to consider. But with six cities, there are 360 different routes that need to be calculated. If you’ve got a route with ten or more cities the number of possible routes is in the millions.

This makes the traveling salesman problem one of a broad class of problems computer scientists call ‘NP hard.’...  

But if the researchers can figure out just how the amoeba works, they can use this trick for more than just helping out traveling salesmen. It could speed up our ability to solve all kinds of difficult computational problems and change the way we approach security.

This one small amoeba—and the way it solves difficult problems—might just change the face of computing forever.