Yalies take part in battle of the brains

For some, every day at Yale might seem like a “Battle of the Brains,” but for two three-man teams of Yale students, the phrase is a very real competition of programming prowess.

Yale sent two teams to Rutgers University on Sunday for the regional contest of the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest – dubbed by organizers the “Battle of the Brains.” The competition asks student teams to solve a range of computer programming problems within five hours with only two computers per team. The two Yale teams, competing against teams from 18 other universities including Columbia University, Cornell University and Princeton University, placed seventh and ninth this year, up from 11th and 14th in 2009.

The Yale Red team was comprised of Jonathan Thirman ’11, Sam Gensburg ’11 and Kevin Chen ’14, while the Yale Green team consisted of Andrew Gu ‘11, Sherwin Yu ‘12 and Kwabena Antwi-Boasiako ’11.

This year marked the first time in recent years that the team has “taken the competition seriously,” said assistant professor of computer science Bryan Ford, who coached the team with Yitzchak Lockerman GRD ’16. With only one training session in 2009, Yale’s two teams placed 11th and 14th in the regional competition.

Ford said the Department of Computer Science had been wary of taking the competition too seriously in the past because most of the tested problems didn’t correspond in any real way with what students were likely to be doing in industry.

“They are not the types of questions that come up at a Yale dinner table,” Lockerman quipped.

Performance in the contest is very dependent on specialized training, Ford explained before the competition. He added that he expected Yale’s performance to improve now that the team was treating contest participation more systematically with a training plan and more regular meetings.

Antwi-Boasiako said at the regional level, there is usually a good balance between easier problems and more difficult ones.

“Some problems are easy, conceptually, because they have what one may call common sense solutions,” he explained. “On the other hand, there are also problems that are challenging because the way we communicate with computers is quite unnatural.”

Still, Alan Ganek, chief technology officer and vice president of strategy for business and technology at IBM Software Group, which has sponsored the contest since 1997, said the topics of the programming tasks came from some of the daunting challenges tackled by the company’s Smarter Planet Initiative, which include issues of pandemic disease spread and urbanization.

The competition has increased its global presence in recent years. In 1997 the competition had 840 competing teams; last year it had over 7,100 teams from 82 countries, according to a competition press release.

Doug Heintzman, director of strategy at IBM and sponsorship executive of the competition, explained this expansion as a result of the globalization effects of new technology.

“The growth of the competition comes from the flattening phenomenon of the internet, a sense of global community, and the efficient exchange of ideas,” Heintzman said. “We recognize that excellence can exist and ought to be recognized in every corner of the world.”

The top 100 teams from regional competitions held around the world advance to the World Finals, to be held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt Feb. 27-Mar. 4, 2011.

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