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Olympic Mind Games

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In a few short weeks, athletes sporting skis and skates will be heading to the Winter Olympics in Canada. 

Meanwhile, though they won't be performing figure-eights, three students from Carnegie Mellon University armed with laptops and their own big brains will head to Harbin, China, for their "Olympics" -- the Olympics of computer science, that is.

CMU students Dan Schafer, Si Young Oh and Yun Dong Yeo will compete Feb. 5 in the 34th Annual Battle of the Brains. Sponsored by IBM, the international competition challenges 100 three-person teams to utilize their computer-programming skills and mental endurance to solve complex, real-world problems.

"Some people like to say it's the Super Bowl of computer science, but it's really more like the Olympics," says CMU's coach, Gregory Kesden, a computer-science professor at the school. "There are literally teams from every country on Earth that are competing for this."

The competition is fairly straightforward. Each three-person team is given one computer and a packet of eight to 10 word problems. Using their knowledge of advanced algorithms, teams then have five hours to build software systems to solve as many of the problems as they can. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded to the teams who manage to solve the most problems in the least amount of time. 

Last year, CMU's team medaled for the first time in the World Finals, earning 12th place and a bronze at the championship held in Stockholm, Sweden.  

"We want a medal, too," says Schafer, a senior computer-science major. "If we give it all we've got and have a good day, we think we have a good shot."

The problems his team will face aren't exactly the kind we solved in our high school math class. For example, one question included in last year's World Finals asked teams to assume the role of air-traffic controllers. Their task was to compute a landing order so that an entire schedule of planes would touch down as safely as possible. Another problem required teams to solve an urban-planning dilemma, tasking them with figuring out how to toll certain roads to help balance a city's traffic congestion.

"The world faces some really big challenges," says IBM's Doug Heintzman, who has served as the Battle of the Brains' sponsor executive for the last six years. "We need really smart people to help us [solve] them."

Heintzman says he expects the students competing in China to be the ones solving our world's most pressing problems, like global climate change. He also expects them to be working for the world's most influential companies.

"All of us are very eager to get our hands on as many of these students as possible," says Heintzman, noting that some of the most competitive teams come from Russia and China, countries which produced all four of last year's gold medalists. "These are the best and brightest problem-solvers in the world."

CMU's team, one of 21 from the U.S., qualified for the World Finals at its regional contest in October, in Cincinnati. (Worldwide, more than 7,100 teams, representing more than 1,800 universities and 82 countries participated in regional competitions.) Since then, Schafer says the team has been practicing multiple times a week, working through problems from other regional competitions, as well as those from previous international championships. 

Kesden says CMU is no stranger to the World Finals, having reached the international championship roughly eight out of the past 10 years. But until last year's bronze medal, the school has struggled to break into the elite top tier.

Typically, the team performs well, failing only to medal, says Kesden, whose team left for northern China on Jan. 30. "We've been comfortable with that, but now that the team brought home the bronze last year, this team says, 'We want to be on the stage when it's over.'"

Would a gold medal be asking too much?

"A gold medal would be fantastic," Schafer says. "If we get a gold medal, I won't need an airplane to fly home -- I'll just run across the ocean."

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