Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Practical Applications of Approximation Algorithms

(Guest Post by David Johnson)
In my Knuth Prize Lecture on approximation algorithms at the last STOC conference, I celebrated the many great theoretical advances we have seen in the area of approximation algorithms over the last four decades, but lamented the apparent paucity of practical applications of this work. We motivate our work in this area as a way of coping with NP-hardness, but how many people who actually have to do such coping in practice are
using our ideas?

In my talk I could only come up with a few examples, these from our work at AT&T Labs - Research, where we have adapted the Goeman-Williamson primal-dual approximation algorithm for the Prize Collecting Steiner Tree problem for use in tools that help design access networks, and where exponential potential function methods for approximating multicommodity flows are being exploited in a proposed content-distribution scheme. I also noted that of the 14 Kanellakis "Theory and Practice Awards" given out so far, of which some 6 or 7 have been for algorithms, only one, that to Freund and Schapire for their statistical "boosting" technique, could be viewed as related to approximation algorithms, and the boosting research is typically classified instead as Learning Theory.

So, I think many viewed my talk as a rather negative exercise. Certainly, practical impact is only one dimension along which to evaluate a field, and, if we relied only on practical motivations, we would not have developed the deep and informative theory we now have. However, practicality IS an important dimension, and I hope that my inability to identify many examples of practical impact was more a fault of my own ignorance, than one of the field. Giving a talk about this to a primarily theoretical audience did not develop many new leads, so I'm hoping that a blog posting will be more successful.

In particular, I would like to collect

(A) Stories about algorithms or algorithmic approaches developed by approximation algorithm theorists that were implemented and applied, either directly or in modified form, by people to solve real-world problems.
(B) Stories about the analysis of algorithms developed by others (for example, the greedy algorithm for SET COVER) that influenced the use of these algorithms in practice, or at least helped explain their performance and hence was cited in "Applications" papers.
The algorithms need not be restricted to NP-hard problems -- I am also interested in approximation algorithms for problems with polynomial-time optimization algorithms that can be too slow for some practical applications.

For both types of stories, I'd like as much detail as possible - who did the work, where, etc., and citations if known. You can post your nominations/comments on this blog, or send them directly to me (dsj@research.att.com). If you post as a comment, please do not do so anonymously, as I may want to contact you for more information.

Assuming I get a good response, I plan to prepare a survey paper (or at least another blog posting) summarizing what I learn.

Thanks! David Johnson (dsj@research.att.com)

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