On Campus

Cyber Super Bowl

University computer teams from around the world to battle in Banff next month

Get ready for a rumble in the Rockies. About 300 computer-elite students from around the globe are coming to Banff, Alta., next month in the 32nd annual Battle of the Brains — a high-pressure, high-stakes clash of grey matter that is, quite simply, the industry’s Cyber Super Bowl.”This is a way to get access to the absolute best and brightest in the entire world,” said Doug Heintzman of computer giant IBM, which sponsors the competition, known formally as the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest. The 100-team event runs April 6-10 at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and will crown a year of competition that saw 6,500 students match wits in three-person teams at 2,000 universities.

There are six Canadian teams: the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Waterloo, which won it all in 1994. On April 9 the teams will march into the Van Horne Ballroom amid pomp and ceremony and each squad will cluster around a computer. The doors close, the clock ticks, the spectators watch and the scoreboard starts flashing.

Each team is handed the same 10 problems ranging from the simple to the impossible. The team that answers the most questions in five hours wins. “They’re fundamental questions of grid theory or series theory or math or physics dressed up in real-life scenarios,” said Heintzman.

For example: you’re a super villain in a volcano lair and a spy has infiltrated and is trying to catch you. You can see him in one of the 50 rooms, all of which are connected by 3,000 tunnels. As the spy moves, what’s the minimum number of tunnels you have to collapse to trap but not kill him?

Or, you’re designing an airport flight schedule. Here are the number of planes arriving and departing. Here are the flight times. Here is the percentage of connecting passengers and here is the location of the departure gates. Optimize for the most efficient movement of passengers.

“It’s more problem-solving than programming,” added Kevin Waugh, a 23-year-old computing grad student on the University of Alberta team.

The teams are not just computer programmers. Some are engineers or mathematicians. Each is chosen for areas of expertise: grid series, deep math, deep physics, algorithms, programming, data structures, numerical computations, artificial intelligence, text processing or pattern recognition.

The team first prioritizes the questions to find the easiest ones and to develop a rough order on how to solve them. One person decides how to solve it, then hands it to the second person to crunch the numbers, who then hands it to the third person to enter the data into the computer, said Chris Dutchyn, computing science professor and coach of the University of Saskatchewan team. But while the third person is waiting to enter the data into the computer, he’s busy either crunching numbers or devising the strategy to solve another problem.

“It’s almost a pipeline approach,” said Dutchyn. Bottlenecks can be fatal. “If everything’s ticking, you’ll win.”

The teams have to watch each other and those around them. Talk too loudly and a team beside you might figure out your solution.

As each team solves a particular problem a certain coloured balloon is brought to their table. If a team looks around and sees a sea of red balloons, it knows that problem is one they should be working on. If they’re the only team struggling with a green-balloon problem, that suggests they’re working on something everyone else was smart enough to avoid.

They can’t wing it — wrong answers are shipped back from the judges with little explanation and incur a time penalty.

As time winds down, teams frantically try to squeeze in one last answer. The scores are counted and the winner is crowned.

Last year’s winners in Tokyo were from Warsaw University in Poland. The competition has been dominated in recent years by teams from Asia, eastern Europe and Russia. “For some of these countries the students are rock stars, they’re Olympic athletes,” said Heintzman. He said a Chinese coach was given a car, the Russian winners were feted by President Vladimir Putin.

The winners get scholarships and other prizes, but all agree the brass ring is being recruited by execs from IBM and other tech giants like Google. “To put something like this on a resume says ‘I’m a world-class programmer, I have the ability to work under pressure and solve hard problems,”‘ said Dutchyn. “There are lots of people who can work on and solve easy problems. People who can solve hard problems are hard to find.”

The battle for the summit goes April 9 in a hotel in the mountains. And yes, all the rooms have high-speed.

-with a report from CP 

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.