A paper posted online this month has settled a nearly 30-year-old conjecture about the structure of the fundamental building blocks of computer circuits. This “sensitivity” conjecture has stumped many of the most prominent computer scientists over the years, yet the new proof is so simple that one researcher summed it up in a single tweet.
“This conjecture has stood as one of the most frustrating and embarrassing open problems in all of combinatorics and theoretical computer science,” wrote Scott Aaronson of the University of Texas, Austin, in a blog post. “The list of people who tried to solve it and failed is like a who’s who of discrete math and theoretical computer science,” he added in an email. [...] Imagine, Mathieu said, that you are filling out a series of yes/no questions on a bank loan application. When you’re done, the banker will score your results and tell you whether you qualify for a loan. This process is a Boolean function: Your answers are the input bits, and the banker’s decision is the output bit.
If your application gets denied, you might wonder whether you could have changed the outcome by lying on a single question — perhaps, by claiming that you earn more than $50,000 when you really don’t. If that lie would have flipped the outcome, computer scientists say that the Boolean function is “sensitive” to the value of that particular bit. If, say, there are seven different lies you could have told that would have each separately flipped the outcome, then for your loan profile, the sensitivity of the Boolean function is seven.
Computer scientists define the overall sensitivity of the Boolean function as the biggest sensitivity value when looking at all the different possible loan profiles. In some sense, this measure calculates how many of the questions are truly important in the most borderline cases — the applications that could most easily have swung the other way if they’d been ever so slightly different. [...] Sensitivity is usually one of the easiest complexity measures to compute, but it’s far from the only illuminating measure. For instance, instead of handing you a paper application, the banker could have interviewed you, starting with a single question and then using your answer to determine what question to ask next. The largest number of questions the banker would ever need to ask before reaching a decision is the Boolean function’s query complexity.
This measure arises in a host of settings — for instance, a doctor might want to send a patient for as few tests as possible before reaching a diagnosis, or a machine learning expert might want an algorithm to examine as few features of an object as possible before classifying it. “In a lot of situations — diagnostic situations or learning situations — you’re really happy if the underlying rule … has low query complexity,” O’Donnell said.