February 15, 2007

C.S. Students Seek Int’l Competition

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This March, three Cornell students will travel to Maihama, Japan and compete in the world finals of the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest, also known as “The Battle of the Brains.” Anand Bhaskar ’08, Michael Cheng ’07 and Nitin Gupta grad comprise one of 88 teams slated to compete.

They qualified for the competition by earning second place in the Greater New York Regional Association ACM contest held on October 29 in Garden City, N.Y. They were one of three university teams to compete.

In the world competition, the teams are given sets of eight or nine problems to solve in five hours and are judged based on how quickly and accurately they complete them. There is a 20-minute penalty for each wrong answer.
The problems are designed to simulate real-life situations. For example, a question that previously appeared involved calculating the possible product combinations and the maximum and minimum profits that a food stand could earn.

Cheng described the different ways in which a problem could pose difficulties to a group.

“Something can be trivial to solve in our head but very hard to code, or there are bugs in the program, or we can’t do it fast enough. But I think the most challenging problems are those which are very easy to understand the problem statement, but we have no clue how to start at all,” he said.
At the international level, the challenge is even greater.

“What would be two or three questions at regionals becomes one question with more than one part,” Gupta said.

The team anticipates the intense competition that they will meet in Japan.
“Qualifying in America is generally not as hard as [competing] in Europe and Asia, [where] there are very hard teams to compete against,” Bhaskar said.

Cheng agrees that international competition is difficult.
“Teams from Russia and China are very, very strong, and American teams have not won for 10 years or so,” he said. According to Bhaskar, the skills needed to succeed in computer science at Cornell are different than those needed to compete in CS competitions as this one.

“A lot of the problems involve algorithms that are taught in C.S. courses at Cornell. But if you just take a course, you do not learn how to write it. Here, you actually have to get your hands dirty, and you have to do it quickly,” Bhaskar said.

To prepare, the team meets two or three times a week, and team members train individually. But in addition to perfecting their problem-solving skills, the team is preparing to immerse itself in the culture of another country.

“I don’t speak any Japanese, so I’m a bit nervous about that,” Bhaksar said. He added that he would like to pay a visit to Mt. Fuji.
“I’m going to stay with a friend in Japan when it is over,” Gupta said, “but any break will be after the contest.”