China dominates NSA-backed coding contest

Chinese student, 18, wins, prompting call for earlier math and science education in U.S.

Programmers from China and Russia have dominated an international competition on everything from writing algorithms to designing components.

Bin Jin
Winner: Bin Jin, or 'crazyb0y.'

Whether the outcome of this competition is another sign that math and science education in the U.S. needs improvement may spur debate. But the fact remains: Of 70 finalists, 20 were from China, 10 from Russia and two from the U.S.

TopCoder Inc., which runs software competitions as part of its software development service, operates TopCoder Open, an annual contest.

About 4,200 people participated in the U.S. National Security Agency-supported challenge. The NSA has been sponsoring the program for a number of years because of its interest in hiring people with advanced skills.

Participants in the contest, which was open to anyone -- from student to professional -- and finished with 120 competitors from around the world, went through a process of elimination that finished this month in Las Vegas.

China's showing in the finals was also helped by the sheer volume of its numbers, 894. India followed at 705, but none of its programmers were finalists. Russia had 380 participants; the United States, 234; Poland, 214; Egypt, 145; and Ukraine, 128, among others.

Of the total number of contestants, 93% were male, and 84% were aged between 18 and 24.

Rob Hughes, president and COO of TopCoder, said the strong finish by programmers from China, Russia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere is indicative of the importance those countries put on mathematics and science education.

"We do the same thing with athletics here that they do with mathematics and science there," Hughes said. He said the U.S. needs to make earlier inroads in middle schools and high school math and science education.

That's a point Hughes is hardly alone on. President Barack Obama, as well as many of the major tech leaders including Bill Gates, have called for similar action.

Of the participants in the contest, more than 57% had bachelor's degrees, most in computer science, and of that 20% had earned a masters degree, and 6% a PhD.

But the winner of the algorithm competition was an 18-year-old student from China, Bin Jin, who went by the handle "crazyb0y". Chinese programmers have a history of doing very well in this contest.

Mike Lydon, TopCoder's CTO, said Jin's future in computer science is assured. "This gentleman can do whatever he wants," he said.

The participants are tested in design, development, architecture, among others, but one of the most popular is the algorithm coding contest.

To give some sense of difficulty, Lydon provided a description of a problem that the contestants were asked to solve:

"With the rise of services such as Facebook and MySpace, the analysis and understanding of such networks is a particularly active area of current computer science research. At an abstract level, these networks consist of nodes (people), connected by links (friendship).

"In this problem, competitors were given the description of two such networks, but with the names of all the nodes removed from each. The networks were each scrambled up before given to the competitors. The task was to determine if the two networks could possibly be from the same group of people.

"The competitors were to unscramble and label the two networks so that if Alice was connected to Bob in one of the two networks, then Alice was also connected to Bob in the other network. This problem is known as the network isomorphism problem, and solving it for large networks is a major unsolved problem in the realm of theoretical computer science."

Lydon said the overall problem is unsolved for larger networks, and what's considered a correct answer for this problem would not be considered large enough for the solution in this case to be groundbreaking.

Two people solved the problem.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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