January 18, 2010

Humbled last year, computer team will try again at world finals

To say the University's computer science team hopes to improve this year is an understatement: At last year's computer programming world finals, known as the Battle of the Brains, it produced no correct answers.

“I’m really hoping to solve three or four problems,” said second-year Louis Wasserman, the only member of the current team, who went to the finals last year.

This year's competition is in Harbin, China. The team will fly out January 31 and return a week later.

The team must work as a group, Wasserman said, to ensure no one overlooks an important piece of information. The problems don’t just test programming skills, but also math and reasoning. “It’s like solving a puzzle,” Wasserman said.

The challenging problems will keep the team at work for five hours. “The programs fall into some common algorithms, like shortest path. Others, you know you need computational geometry, which is hard, so let’s save this one for when we’ve finished the rest,” said third-year Matthew Steffan, another team member, rehearsing the team's strategy.

Works in Theory trains in five-hour sessions with its coach, Borja Sotomayor, a graduate student in the computer science department. Sotomayor cribs questions from old tests and rewrites them for the team.

Despite the long hours, some international teams hold daily practice sessions, Wasserman said. Last year, St. Petersburg University IT won with eight correct answers. The only American school in the top ten was MIT, which placed second, and the only other American school to reach the top 25 was Princeton, which tied for 13th place with 10 other teams.

Wasserman recruited the other two members--Steffan and third-year Korei Klein--to the team, called Works in Theory, this year.

Steffan was on another University team last year that didn't make the finals, and said even getting this far is an accomplishment. "It’s impressive to get to the world finals since this contest is the domain of large state schools with big engineering programs. It’s like if we beat Michigan at football,” he said.

Steffan said the team hasn't succumbed to the pressure of the world stage.

“It’s like you have a math class and you leave a problem set till five hours before it’s due, except you have to guys to help,” he said. “[But] it’s much more exciting than a problem set.”