The Art Gallery Guardian

Strings with hamming distance exactly 1

Lin Yang asked me about the complexity for the following problem, which is the day 2 part 2 of the advent of code 2018. It is an elegant programming exercise, and also a clever algorithmic exercise. The problem can be summarized below.


Given a set W of n length m strings. Decide if there are two of them that differs at exactly one position.

In other words, we want to find two strings in W with hamming distance 1.

The naive algorithm would have running time O(n^2m). The complexity of the problem have gathered a lot of attention a while ago, for example a post in, and on reddit. Some of them had a running time of O(nm^2) instead. Some require hashing to get the expected running time of O(mn). Here we are interested in an algorithm with worst case O(mn) time.

1 An O(mn) time algorithm

First, we define some equivalent classes on the strings in W.

  1. x\equiv^i y, if x[1..i-1]=y[1..i-1]. Namely, if the first i-1 elements of x and y match.
  2. x\equiv_i y if x[i+1..m]=y[i+1..m]. Namely, if the last m-i+1 elements of x and y match.

The algorithm uses the following idea. For each i, decide if there are any strings x and y such that differs in precisely position i.


For distinct x and y, they differ only in position i if and only if x\equiv^i y and x\equiv_i y.

Let \mathcal{P}_i and \mathcal{S}_i be the collection of equivalent classes of \equiv^i and \equiv_i, respectively. We show a result related to the meet of partitions.


Let \mathcal{A} and \mathcal{B} be partitions of [n]. There is an O(n) time algorithm to test find the sets in \set{ A\cap B | A\in \mathcal{A}, B\in \mathcal{B}}.


Let \mathcal{A}=\set{A_1,\ldots,A_k} and \mathcal{B} = \set{B_1,\ldots,B_\ell}. We define I_i = (a,b) such that i\in A_a and i\in B_b. Then we know i is in A_a\cap B_b if I_i=(a,b). Hence we are interested in find the largest set of elements such S such that for i,j\in S, I_i=I_j. The simplified problem can be solved in O(n) time. Indeed, the pair is just a base n number with 2 digits. We can apply radix sort with running time O(n) and group by the result.

Note one can also directly use a partition refinement data structure to get the same result.

As a corollary, consider \mathcal{A}=\mathcal{P}_i and \mathcal{B}=\mathcal{S}_i, then we obtain the following lemma.


Given the collections \mathcal{P}_i and \mathcal{S}_i, there is an O(n) time algorithm to test if there are two strings x,y\in W that differs in precisely position i.


Finding \mathcal{P}_1,\ldots,\mathcal{P}_m and \mathcal{S}_1,\ldots,\mathcal{S}_m can be done in O(mn) time.


To find the equivalent classes, build two tries for the strings. Trie T_\mathcal{P} for strings in W and trie T_\mathcal{S} for the reversal of strings in W. Building the tries takes O(mn) time. Inspect the nodes at depth i-1 in T_P and nodes at depth m-i+1 in T_S to recover \mathcal{P}_i and \mathcal{S}_i in O(n) time.


There is an O(mn) time algorithm that solves Problem 1.


Finding the sequence of equivalent classes takes O(mn) time by Lemma 4. For each i, checking if there exists x,y\in W differs in precisely position i takes O(n) time by Lemma 3. Since i ranges from 1 to m, we obtain the final running time is O(mn).

2 Remarks

Ruosong Wang communicated another O(mn) solution. It is much easier to describe. Let \diamond be a symbol not in the alphabet. Build a generalized suffix tree over the set of strings S'=\set{x\diamond x| x\in W}. Traverse the suffix tree, up to level m, and output true if a path that contains \diamond was traversed, and can lead to more than 2 leaves. Indeed, this means the substring x\diamond y appears at least twice. Hence there are at least two strings of the form yax and ybx in W. This definitely hits the optimal running time, but implementing a generalized suffix tree is fairly hard.

We do assume the alphabet size is constant. If the alphabet size is \sigma and ordered, then there is an extra factor of \log \sigma in building the tries. The the final running time will be O(mn\log \sigma).

Problem 1 also reduces to finding the closest pair of elements by hamming metric [1]. It does not get us the desired running time though.

3 An implementation in Haskell

The implementation is mostly faithful to the presentation in the article. We did not implement counting sort nor radix sort.


[1] K. Min, M.-Y. Kao, H. Zhu, The closest pair problem under the hamming metric, in: H.Q. Ngo (Ed.), Computing and Combinatorics, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2009: pp. 205–214.

Posted by Chao Xu on 2018-12-23.
Tags: algorithms, strings, tries.