Brute-force search

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Brute-force search

In computer science, brute-force search or exhaustive search, also known as generate and test, is a very general problem-solving technique that consists of systematically enumerating all possible candidates for the solution and checking whether each candidate satisfies the problem's statement.

A brute-force algorithm to find the divisors of a natural number n would enumerate all integers from 1 to n, and check whether each of them divides n without remainder. A brute-force approach for the eight queens puzzle would examine all possible arrangements of 8 pieces on the 64-square chessboard, and, for each arrangement, check whether each (queen) piece can attack any other.

While a brute-force search is simple to implement, and will always find a solution if it exists, its cost is proportional to the number of candidate solutions – which in many practical problems tends to grow very quickly as the size of the problem increases. Therefore, brute-force search is typically used when the problem size is limited, or when there are problem-specific heuristics that can be used to reduce the set of candidate solutions to a manageable size. The method is also used when the simplicity of implementation is more important than speed.

This is the case, for example, in critical applications where any errors in the algorithm would have very serious consequences; or when using a computer to prove a mathematical theorem. Brute-force search is also useful as a baseline method when benchmarking other algorithms or metaheuristics. Indeed, brute-force search can be viewed as the simplest metaheuristic. Brute force search should not be confused with backtracking, where large sets of solutions can be discarded without being explicitly enumerated (as in the textbook computer solution to the eight queens problem above). The brute-force method for finding an item in a table — namely, check all entries of the latter, sequentially — is called linear search.

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