Friday, June 01, 2012

Minimum language complexity needed to construct exponential time algorithm

(while this could have been a question on cstheory, I think it's a little too vague - but it's perfect for a blog post!)

I was at dinner with some faculty colleagues (assistant professor beer night - best invention known to mankind!) and we were in the traditional "all our students are terrible" phase of the evening *. The discussion turned to "what programming concepts do students understand after an intro-CS class", which led to the following claim:
"you can't write an exponential time algorithm without knowing recursion"
While this seemed plausible,  I was skeptical. Thankfully my PL colleague (and super blogger) Matt Might was at the table, and he pointed out that the lambda calculus formally has no recursive constructs and yet is Turing-complete, via the magic of the Y-combinator (which essentially computes fixed points directly).

Of course one might argue that a fixed point operator does give you recursion (indeed the Y-combinator is often referred to as anonymous recursion). So my question really is:

Is there a well defined notion of "programming languages without recursion or recursion-like substances" and if so, what is the most expensive algorithm that can be expressed in such a language ?

p.s BDDs seem like an obvious candidate...

1 (other regularly discussed phases include "I can't believe < latest cryptic thing > senior faculty member said", "How many frequent flyer miles do you have" and "chickens!". Beer night is awesome !
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