comp3 — Computability and Computational Complexity
Academic year 2023-2024,
CS Master degree at the University of Trento, Italy.

Basic information

Important news

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Fall semester, from Monday, September 11 to Tuesday, December 19; four hours per week.

  • Mondays: 10:30—12:30, room A107.
  • Tuesdays: 13:30—15:30, room A103.


Mauro Brunato <>

Please email me if you want to set up a meeting.

In order to receive urgent updates (e.g., about moved or cancelled lectures), please subscribe to the course's Moodle page.

Course description

Aim of the course

The course sets the theoretical bases for being able to discuss two fundamental properties of computational problems.

Given a problem, we will initially be concerned about its computability:

  • Is there a method to solve the problem?
  • Can we describe this method in an unequivocal way?
  • Is there a universal “language” for such task?

When a problem is found out to be solvable, we can wonder how efficiently it can be done.

  • What are the meaningful criteria to express how hard a problem is?
  • Is there a meaningful way to classify problems with respect to their hardness?
  • Does this classification tell us something about the limits of our capability to solve problems?


Basic notions of mathematical logic

Expected outcome

At the end of the course, the students will be able to:

  • Describe problems and problem instances in a formally precise way.
  • Describe the solution of simple problems in terms of a universal computational model (the Turing Machine).
  • Prove that a specific problem (Turing's halting problem) is not computable and recognize the importance of this result.
  • Apply the formal notion of reduction in order to extend properties of known problems to new ones.
  • Identify quantitative criteria to describe the complexity of an algorithm with respect to instance size.
  • Describe the main time and space complexity classes, and their inclusion relationships.
  • Define what it means for a problem to be complete for a class.
  • Prove that a specific problem (SATISFIABILITY) is complete in the NP class (Cook's Theorem).
  • Discuss the P vs. NP problem and its main implications on various branches of computer science.
  • Analyze how extensions of the basic computing model (randomness, quantum computing) can benefit the solution of some problem classes.

Program outline

For the actual program, see below.

  • Computability
    • Turing machines.
    • Decidable languages and computable functions.
    • The Halting Problem.
    • Other undecidable languages and uncomputable functions.
    • Rice's Theorem.
  • Computational Complexity
    • Problem instance size, measures of complexity, classification of problems.
    • Time complexity classes: P, NP, EXP. NP-completeness. Study of NP-complete problems.
    • Space complexity classes: LOGSPACE, NLOGSPACE, PSPACE, NPSPACE. Savitch's theorem.
    • Polynomial hierarchy and canonical complete problems.
    • Advanced topics, depending on available time ((randomized classes, counting classes, interactive proofs, cryptography, quantum computation, approximation).


The following books may be useful, but none is mandatory. References to online material will be provided in the course program section.

Sanjeev Arora and Boaz Barak. Computational Complexity: A Modern Approach. Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN 9780521424264 [Draft of the book]

John E. Hopcroft, Rajeev Motwani, and Jeffrey D. Ullman. Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages and Computation. Pearson new International Edition, 2013. ISBN: 9781292039053

Christos H. Papadimitriou. Computational complexity. Addison Wesley (Pearson College Div.), 1994. ISBN 9780020153085

Course materials

This section will contain course material and exercises.\\ Nota bene — The initial material is based on previous editions of the course, and will likely change during the Semester.

Lecture notes

  • 2023-09-05 version: notes are based on previous iterations of this course; they will be changed during the Semester: please see the included changelog for details.

Example code

External links

(See the lecture notes for details)


The exam consists of a written test, with exercises and theoretical questions. Examples are provided in the lecture notes.

Past exams

  • Exercises from previous years' exams that are compatible with this year's program appear in the lecture notes.
  • Course program

    This Section will be updated during the year.
    • 2023-09-11
      • Basic definitions: alphabet, string, language. Enumerating strings.
      • Enumeration of countable sets, diagonal proofs of uncountability.
    • 2019-09-12
      • Examples of potentially infinite computations based on some unsolved mathematical conjectures (Goldbach, Collatz).
      • Intuitive definitions of recursive and recursively enumerable sets. Diagonal procedure to enumerate R.E. sets.
      • Turing machines: intuition, introduction.
    • 2023-09-18
      • Turing machines; representation of their transition function as a table. Examples.
    • 2023-09-19
      • Computational power of Turing machines: multiple tapes, alphabet size. Reduction to 1-tape, 2-symbol machines with quadratic time loss.