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Boolean Satisfiability (CNF-SAT) problem in $n$ variables may contain a CNF formula with $O(2^n)$ clauses in the worst case.

My question is: Wouldn't a program reading a CNF formula have to asymptotically run $O(2^n)$ steps? Is the search for a sub-exponential CNF-SAT algorithm moot?

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No. The meaning of "polynomial-time" is "polynomial in the length of an input". We can still search for an algorithm that is efficient on short inputs.

For instance, suppose we have CNF formulas with $n$ variables and only $10n$ clauses. No one knows how to solve this in time polynomial in $n$.

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