Theoretical computer science

An artistic representation of a Turing machine. Turing machines are used to model general computing devices.

Theoretical computer science (TCS) is a subset of general computer science and mathematics that focuses on more mathematical topics of computing and includes the theory of computation.

It is difficult to circumscribe the theoretical areas precisely. The ACM's Special Interest Group on Algorithms and Computation Theory (SIGACT) provides the following description:[1]

TCS covers a wide variety of topics including algorithms, data structures, computational complexity, parallel and distributed computation, probabilistic computation, quantum computation, automata theory, information theory, cryptography, program semantics and verification, machine learning, computational biology, computational economics, computational geometry, and computational number theory and algebra. Work in this field is often distinguished by its emphasis on mathematical technique and rigor.


While logical inference and mathematical proof had existed previously, in 1931 Kurt Gödel proved with his incompleteness theorem that there are fundamental limitations on what statements could be proved or disproved.

These developments have led to the modern study of logic and computability, and indeed the field of theoretical computer science as a whole[citation needed]. Information theory was added to the field with a 1948 mathematical theory of communication by Claude Shannon. In the same decade, Donald Hebb introduced a mathematical model of learning in the brain. With mounting biological data supporting this hypothesis with some modification, the fields of neural networks and parallel distributed processing were established. In 1971, Stephen Cook and, working independently, Leonid Levin, proved that there exist practically relevant problems that are NP-complete – a landmark result in computational complexity theory[citation needed].

With the development of quantum mechanics in the beginning of the 20th century came the concept that mathematical operations could be performed on an entire particle wavefunction. In other words, one could compute functions on multiple states simultaneously. This led to the concept of a quantum computer in the latter half of the 20th century that took off in the 1990s when Peter Shor showed that such methods could be used to factor large numbers in polynomial time, which, if implemented, would render most modern public key cryptography systems uselessly insecure.[citation needed]

Modern theoretical computer science research is based on these basic developments, but includes many other mathematical and interdisciplinary problems that have been posed, as shown below:

DFAexample.svg Elliptic curve simple.png 6n-graf.svg Wang tiles.svg P = NP ?
Mathematical logic Automata theory Number theory Graph theory Computability theory Computational complexity theory
GNITIRW-TERCES Commutative diagram for morphism.svg SimplexRangeSearching.svg TSP Deutschland 3.png Blochsphere.svg
Cryptography Type theory Category theory Computational geometry Combinatorial optimization Quantum computing theory