In computational complexity theory, the complexity class #P (pronounced "number P" or, sometimes "sharp P" or "hash P") is the set of the counting problems associated with the decision problems in the set NP. More formally, #P is the class of function problems of the form "compute ƒ(x)," where ƒ is the number of accepting paths of a nondeterministic Turing machine running in polynomial time. Unlike most well-known complexity classes, it is not a class of decision problems but a class of function problems.
An NP problem is often of the form, "Are there any solutions that satisfy certain constraints?" For example:
The corresponding #P problems ask "how many" rather than "are there any". For example:
- How many subsets of a list of integers add up to zero?
- How many Hamiltonian cycles in a given graph have cost less than 100?
- How many variable assignments satisfy a given CNF formula?
Clearly, a #P problem must be at least as hard as the corresponding NP problem. If it's easy to count answers, then it must be easy to tell whether there are any answers. Just count them, and see if the count is greater than zero.
One consequence of Toda's theorem is that a polynomial-time machine with a #P oracle (P#P) can solve all problems in PH, the entire polynomial hierarchy. In fact, the polynomial-time machine only needs to make one #P query to solve any problem in PH. This is an indication of the extreme difficulty of solving #P-complete problems exactly.
Surprisingly, some #P problems that are believed to be difficult correspond to easy P problems. For more information on this, see #P-complete.
The closest decision problem class to #P is PP, which asks if a majority (more than half) of the computation paths accept. This finds the most significant bit in the #P problem answer. The decision problem class ⊕P instead asks for the least significant bit of the #P answer.
The complexity class #P was first defined by Leslie Valiant in a 1979 paper on the computation of the permanent.
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