MIT 6.00SC | Optional Recitation | Algorithm Complexity and Class Review

To get a clear picture of this Recitation, kindly read the Recitation handout (PDF).

The first question to ask ourself is What is Big-O notation?

Big-O notation gives us a upper bound on how long somethings will execute. The important thing to remember is that this is not time bound. So Big-O does not take how long a program will execute, it tells how many steps it will take to execute a program.

Big-O notation cannot predict accurately for small inputs, but for a very large input how the algorithm performs is what we are interested in.

Consider this scenario. We have 2 Algorithms and their Big-Oh representation.

A1 : O(n)
A2 : O(n^2)

A2/A1 : O(n^2)/O(n)
: O(n^2)

So as we can see in the above case, irrespective of which computer you are running these algorithms, A2 will always be slower that A1 by n^2 times.

Some Common Big-O Notations

  • O(1) : Constant Time,  What this means is, it does not depends on the size of the input, so O(1) = O(100) = O(2^100). The reason being, it will not change based on the input.
  • O(log n): Logarithmic Time, Any base log is same Big-O because the variation is minimal. This is the fastest time bound for Search.
  • O(n) : Linear Time, This means we have to look at each input at least once.
  • O(n log n) : This is the fastest time bound for Sorting.
  • O(n^2) :  Quadratic Time, This is the complexity when we consider inner loops.
  • O (2^n) : Exponential Time, This is really big.

Always remember:-

O(n^k) < O(k^n)
Polynomial Time < Exponential Time

Some Questions

  1. Does O(100 n^2) = O(n^2)
  2. Does O(1/4 n^3) = O(n^3)
  3. Does O(n) + O(n) = O(n)

All the above are True, because Big -O is bothered with the higher power.

Constant Time Examples

Consider the below example:-

def inc(x):
return x+1

even this is constant time:-

def bar(x, y):
z = x + y
w = x * y
q = (w**z) % 870
return 9*q

Linear Time

Here is an example of linear time code:-

def mul2(x, y):
result = 0
for i in range(y):
result += x
return result

The for loop in the above code is an indication that it will be atleast O(n)

Not always, the operation inside a for loop is constant time, consider this example:-

def count_same_ltrs(a_str, b_str):
count = 0
for char in a_str:
if char in b_str:
count += 1
return count

The above is not linear, because the if condition also have to traverse the b_str, so this is O(n^2)


Consider the below example for recursion in factorial program.

def r_factorial(n):
if n <= 0:
return 1
return n*r_factorial(n-1)

To find the complexity of a recursive function you have to find out the number of recursive call it will make. So for the above example it will make n calls. So this will be Linear.

Now consider this example:-

def foo(n):
if n <= 1:
return 1
return foo(n/2) + 1

So solve this we need to find this

n/2^n = 1
n = 2^k
k = log n

So this is O(Log N)


For a factorial, we might consider that it is linear because of this equation:-

fib(n) = fib(n - 1) + fib(n -2)

But it is not, if we draw the call structure, we will see a tree. As shown below:-


So as you can see, the depth of the tree is n, and at each level we have a branching factor of 2, so a loose calculation will give a complexity of O(n^2)



  1. Recitation handout (PDF)
  2. Python | Time Complexity
  3. Wiki | Big O Notation

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