Saturday, August 10, 2013

Numbers game


Keyboard warriors: Contestants huddle over their laptops at the 2013 International Olympiad in Informatics. Photo: Naz Mulla

The only sound in the huge auditorium is a faint, other-worldly scrabbling, shot through with tiny clicks and clacks. Close your eyes and it's easy to imagine the place is being invaded by swarms of those flesh-eating scarab beetles that guard pharaohs' tombs in horror flicks: clickityclackityclickityclackity ...

Except what we're hearing isn't the imagined past, but the scarcely imaginable future. It's the sound of up to 300 keyboards being rattled simultaneously by some of the sharpest young computer-science brains on the planet. They've come from 80 countries to gather here at the University of Queensland (UQ) for the esoteric annual thinkathon known as the International Olympiad in Informatics, or IOI.

You can sit there for an hour sometimes, just staring at the problem ... I guess you do enter a sort of trance-like state. 

Informatics is the science of teaching "intelligence" to computers so they can quickly solve the sort of complex, big data problems that human minds, unassisted, might grapple with until the end of history. It's the first time Australia has hosted the event, in which gifted high school students - the IT pioneers of tomorrow - compete to overcome a series of set problems that would leave most of us baffled at the starting post.

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High achievers: The Australian team for the 2013 International Olympiad in Informatics - (from left) Michael Chen, Ray Li, Ishraq Huda, James Payor - with their silver and bronze medals. Photo: Heather Sommariva

Now, on the final day of competition, the cerebral warriors are hunched over their laptops at long trestle tables - row upon row of them extending from one end of the auditorium to the other - facing their moments of truth. Casually dressed, with good luck charms at hand, the four-person teams are seated alphabetically according to their country of origin. Talking is forbidden, and volunteer marshals in bright vests scrutinise the action, or lack of it, from their posts around the hall's perimeter.


At this stage, according to a separate bank of computers in an adjoining room marked "Mission Control", two Chinese kids are leading the field, with the reigning champion from the US in third spot. Australia's contestants, though unlikely to win outright, are still in the race for the numerous gold, silver or bronze IOI medals on offer. This is definitely not a spectator sport, though body language can be interesting. Some of the students seem always to be busy at their keyboards; some just stare mournfully into space; some appear to be actually talking to their computers, and a few look like they died hours ago but won't lie down.

Meaningless to the uninitiated, the strange symbols cluttering the kids' screens are actually mathematic codes they're designing to tell their computers what they want them to do. Describing this process in lay terms is a challenge in itself, but Dr Ben Burton - who designed Australia's informatics training program - does his best when we meet a few days before the 25th annual IOI gets underway in Brisbane. "The world is beset by insanely hard problems involving the processing of enormous amounts of data," says the University of Queensland maths lecturer in a campus cafe.

A contestant huddles over his laptop.

A contestant huddles over his laptop. Photo: Naz Mulla

"To deal with these problems you need not just programmers, who can tell computers to do what someone else has told them to tell the computers to do, but also creative coders, who can dream up what it is that the programmers need to tell the computer to do ... the hard part isn't the programming, but the mathematics underneath it."

Burton fixes me with his penetrating blue eyes: "Are you following?"

International high school-based competitions are nothing new. Since 1959, the world's brightest young minds have been pitted against one another in UNESCO-sanctioned International Science and Mathematics Olympiads involving biology, chemistry, physics and pure mathematics (in which Burton, 38, was once a gold medallist for Australia), but informatics didn't become part of the program until 1989. Australia began competing in 1999, and since then informatics has jumped other disciplines to become the second-largest Olympiad after pure maths.

But it's still not widely taught in Australian school curriculums. "So one of the challenges for us is finding the students who are interested," says Burton, a member of the IOI's international scientific committee, which devises the problems contestants must solve. In Australia, students with a flair for informatics are often self-taught.

"They're the ones who sit up in their bedrooms until midnight teaching themselves how to code and uncode," notes Burton. "Even then, by the time we get them to the training school [held annually in Sydney and Canberra], they'll be good at programming, but may not realise that these mathematic problems beneath the code even exist ... it's very eye-opening: this whole area of science they didn't know existed. And some of them just love it, and turn out to be very, very good at it."

The fundamentals of the science are algorithms (procedures for solving complex mathematical problems), and data structures (methods of storing and organising information within a computer so it can be used efficiently). Informatics underpin the success of Google, eBay, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, and its practitioners are increasingly sought by all major industries with a need to find patterns or configurations within vast amounts of data.

Which is why kids who do well in the IOI often gain entry to the world's leading universities, or are head-hunted by major IT corporations, or tempted into lucrative jobs in defence, finance or medical research. So far, most IOI winners have come either from Asia or eastern European countries like Poland, where the teaching of higher mathematics is more traditional. (In Australia, several hundred students compete annually to qualify for the nation's four-member IOI team. But in China, the four chosen for this year's national team had to beat 600,000 others to win their places.)

The logistics of hosting the week-long event are almost as daunting as the problems facing contestants. In all, with team leaders and accompanying adults, the international visitors arriving for the IOI number 600 ... and they're all flying into Brisbane on the same day. Five of UQ's residential colleges have been prepared to accommodate them, and teams of volunteers from the student body are busy setting up the cavernous exhibition hall where the Olympiad will take place.

The visitors arrive on a Saturday, attend a practice session in the hall on Sunday, then have two days of actual competition on Monday and Wednesday, with excursions to nearby beaches and tourist attractions on the off-days. With two days to go before it all begins, Burton and UQ's event co-ordinator Andree Phillips lead the way to the exhibition hall, where a chain-gang of volunteers is unloading 400 new laptops from trucks. Inside, technicians are installing a big generator in case of a power outage. Others are setting up the new computers so that when battle begins the tasks will appear on all screens at the same moment.

Burton and other far-flung members of the IOI brains trust who devised the problems for the competition have been chatting online for weeks to get everything sorted. The technical whiz setting up all the computers, including those that score and judge the students' work, is the sleep-deprived Bernard Blackham, 29, a University of NSW PhD student and informatics specialist who's just flown in from London to oversee the installations. "All's well," Blackham tells us amid the controlled chaos in the hall. "I think we can survive anything bar an earthquake or a software bug."

The first thing an outsider notices when all teams are in place for the practice session is that informatics is a global boys' club. Of the 299 participants registered for this year's event, only seven are female. Puzzlingly, no one seems to know why. Even international IOI president Richard Forster is stumped. "We have a difficulty with attracting women," he says after flying in from London for the competition. "We've all tried to solve it, and none of us have hit on quite what the problem is, let alone the solution."

Rosica Dejanovska, a contestant from the Republic of Macedonia, reckons the gender imbalance is no big mystery. "Although the time when women were discriminated against was long ago," she reasons, "people still believe that things like maths and IT are not for women ... subconsciously, perhaps, girls come to accept that this is not the field for them, and they cannot succeed in it."

Dejanovska, 19, says she and her two sisters are lucky to have parents who don't share such prejudices. She wants to be a computer programmer, and began studying informatics at 15. "Last year I competed in the International Maths Olympiad, and this year, even if I don't win a medal, just being here is a great success for me." Is she uncomfortable competing against so many males? "Not really, because I'm quite used to it ... especially in Macedonia. It's a small country, and at this level, I'm pretty much the only female to be involved."

Every so often, the Olympiads uncover near-genius individuals such as Gennady Korotkevich - "The Boy Wonder of Belarus" - who was just 11 when he won the first of five informatics gold medals. An official with the current Belarus team tells me proudly that Korotkevich's record (he won the IOI three times) has never been equalled. But the Boy Wonder is now an 18-year-old uni student in Russia, and no longer able to compete.

Australian team member James Payor, from The King's School in Sydney, shot to the top of local ratings last year when he came from nowhere to qualify for the IOI at his first attempt. A nervous interviewee, the 17-year-old was introduced to computer programming early by his engineer father, and hopes informatics might lead him to a career with an IT corporation.

It's only when asked how he feels while wrestling with a challenging problem that Payor loses his doomed-man expression and starts to relax. "You can sit there for an hour sometimes, just staring at the problem and trying to observe things about it that makes it seem easier in your mind," he says. "You try different options, eliminate things that aren't relevant, and try to, like, work through the 'flavour text' [issued with the problem] to understand what it's actually asking for ... Once you're starting to get somewhere, I guess you do enter a sort of trance-like state."

Which is pretty much what I do when Payor tries to describe the practice problem they're all working on at the moment. "Say you want to find the number of bridges between these two islands. The bridges connect a series of points, and they can be diagonal but they can't cross over each other. All your program can do is sail from one point to another, and tell you how many bridges you passed under. And from that you need to reconstruct the number of bridges, while only sailing across, like, [a percentage] of the number of points connected by the bridges."

The other Australian team members are Ray Li and Ishraq Huda (both first-timers from James Ruse Agricultural High School, a selective government school in Sydney's north-west), and Michael Chen, 15, from Melbourne's Scotch College, who is contesting his third IOI. Their team leader is Jarrah Lacko, another James Ruse old boy and dual IOI silver medallist, who - at the ripe old age of 22 - provides a good example of the wealth of choices facing informatics stars.

Lacko recently put aside his studies for a double degree at the University of NSW to complete a three-month internship in Silicon Valley in California. The instant messaging start-up that lured him there has an engineering team composed entirely of computer coders who'd done well in programming competitions. Now doing a similar internship in London, the mop-haired Lacko admits he's become a bit spoiled for choice. "There are a massive amount of options available. There's academia, big corporations, small start-ups in Sydney and Silicon Valley ... I'm still undecided about which way to go."

For Lacko, it all began with a preoccupation with puzzles. "From a very early age," he says, "I had this constant desire, whenever I saw puzzles or puzzle games, to make my own." Informatics became a logical extension of this impulse. "It's about teaching a computer the algorithms needed to solve puzzles. So if you wrote a program to solve Sudoku puzzles, you'd have to design an algorithm, and work out all the logical steps that you as a human take to solve such problems. Then, faced with any possible Sudoku grid, with any possible set of numbers, the computer could take the same sort of logical steps and solve the problem efficiently."

On the first day of competition, the grading computers in the server room (Mission Control) freak out and go down one by one. This means contestants submitting draft solutions to the day's three set problems are robbed of the feedback they normally receive minutes later, telling them whether they're on the right track or not. Described by Burton as an "exciting glitch" (and by Lacko as a "catastrophe"), the escalating meltdown apparently began when a contestant submitted a solution so poor that one of the grading computers developed a software flaw and quit in disgust. But the Olympiad continues, and on Monday night, after a pow-wow among organisers and team leaders, it's decided the day's results will stand despite the dramas.

On Tuesday, while contestants are on excursions, technicians work all day and through the night coaxing the offended computers back to life. But on Wednesday the competition's restart is delayed by a new glitch: one of the day's set problems has been "seen before" by some contestants and has to be replaced. Ten minutes before things finally get underway, a possum invades the hall and leads marshals on a lively chase before exiting to cheers.

An apt distraction, as it turns out, because the hardest problem of the day (solved by only three competitors) involves navigating escape routes through Brisbane after the city is invaded by giant, mutated wombats. It's not good for reigning champ Johnny Ho, the 17-year-old Californian who won last year's Olympiad in Italy. Running third after day one, he slumps to 30th after "looking at the wrong version of a problem and getting really confused". Not to worry: Ho has finished high school, and next year - thanks to his informatics fame - he'll accept an invitation to attend Harvard.

Rosica Dejanovska finishes well down the ratings, but remains upbeat: "I'm a bit disappointed that I won't get a medal, but I also feel relieved that tomorrow is an excursion day and we will party."

The Chinese team blitzes the field, finishing first and second, with another Chinese tying for third with a Russian. The overall winner is Lijie Chen, 17, with 569 out of a possible 600 points.

Australia wins three silver medals and a bronze - its third-best result since entering the IOI. Ray Li is the host nation's top finisher in 26th place overall; James Payor and Michael Chen also get silver medals, and Ishraq Huda a bronze.

A few days later, still contemplating his dazzling array of career options, Jarrah Lacko returns to his latest IT internship in London. As you'd expect, the boy who puzzled his way into the future has no qualms about humans ever becoming too subservient to computers. "Dear Google," runs a post on his website, "please hurry up and take over the world faster. Yours truly, completely and eternally, Jarrah."
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