This solution comes from https://people.eecs.berkeley.edu/~luca/cs172-07/solutions/practicefinal-sol.pdf

Consider the language

$$ EQ_{NFA} = \{ \langle N, N^\prime \rangle \mid N, N^\prime \text{ are NFA's with the same alphabet and } L(N) = L(N^\prime) \} $$ show that $EQ_{NFA} \in \textbf{PSPACE}$.

(hint: Can you convert this to a appropriate reachability problem?)

Solution Outline: Suppose $N$ and $N^\prime$ both have at most $n$ states. We can then convert them into DFAs $D_N$ and $D_{N^\prime}$ with at most $m = 2n$ states each using space polynomial in $n$. Finally, we can construct a DFA $S$, which is the product of $D_N$ and $D_{N^\prime}$ (with at most $m = 2^n$ states) and accepts $L(D_N)\Delta L(D_{N^\prime})$ (strings that are in exactly one of the languages). Now, $L(N) = L(N^\prime)$ iff $L(S) = \emptyset$ i.e. none of the final states are reachable from the start state in $S$.

Since this is a reachability problem, it can be decided nondeterministically using space logarithmic in the size of the graph (because $PATH \in NL$). Thus, this problem can be decided in $NSPACE(\log{(m^2)}) = NSPACE(n) \subseteq NSPACE(n^2) \subseteq PSPACE)$.

I see that it works and I see that the last paragraph try to convince that it is actually $PSPACE$. But, I have a doubt:

After all, the solution constructs two exponential automats. How is it possible?

My intuition is that: We can compute DFA for NFA using $\log n$ memory on working tape. Obviously, we have to use exponential size of memory but on the output (readonly) tape.

Now, when we construct it we can use it in reachability problem which works in $NL$. We know that composition of $LOG$ function is $LOG$. Is my understanding correct? Does the same apply (I mean a composition of functions) when it comes to $NLOG$?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Could you please replace the image with the corresponding text? Images cannot be searched. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 12:43

1 Answer 1


Your confusion is understandable. The solution outline you've quoted misses an important point and suggests the opposite of that point.

The DFAs are, as you say, exponentially big. We can construct them, but not in polynomial space. However, the key point is that we don't need to construct and store the whole automaton. The reachability algorithm doesn't need that. All it needs is the ability to know what state it's in at the moment and construct the list of states it could move to next. Both of these can be done easily, on the fly, from the description of the NFAs. Likewise, we don't need to literally construct the product automaton: we can do that implicitly as well, by just tracking our position in each automaton separately.

Let's do a simplified example. Suppose that we just want to know if a particular NFA $N = (Q, \Sigma, \Delta, q_0, A)$ accepts at least one string, i.e., if an accepting state is reachable from the initial state. In this simplified scenario, we could just work directly with the NFA but we'll ignore that and convert to a DFA, $M$. If $N$ has $n$ states, then $M$ will have $2^n$ states so, if we were to write out its full transition graph, we'd need exponential space.

However, the reachability algorithm doesn't require us to write out the whole graph. As it runs, it says things like, "OK, I'm at vertex $v$. Where can I go next?" Normally, we imagine that it looks up that vertex in the graph's adjacency matrix to answer this question, but that's not the only way. It could calculate what vertices can be reached, using the rules of the subset construction that generates $M$ from $N$. Specifically, if we're at vertex $v$ then $v = \{s_1, \dots, s_\ell\}\subseteq Q$ and the vertices we can move to are the vertices of the form $\Delta(s_1,a)\cup\dots\cup\Delta(s_\ell,a)$ for each symbol $a\in\Sigma$. Each such vertex is a subset of $Q$, which we can write down in $n$ bits, and there are at most $|\Sigma|$ different possibilities, so you can write all of them down in $n|\Sigma|$ bits, which is polynomial in the size of $N$. Once the reachability algorithm has decided what to do next, it can forget this list of vertices and re-use the space. If it needs to access the list of $v$'s neighbours again, it can recalculate it.

The reachability algorithm never needs the whole adjacency matrix of the graph to be written down at the same time. Pretend, for a moment, that we did have the graph written down. Since the graph has $2^n$ vertices, we would need working space $O(\log 2^n) = O(n)$ to run the algorithm. Now, instead of writing the adjacency matrix down, we'll calculate it on the fly. That will require additional working space $O(n)$ for the calculations of what the adjacency matrix is. So the total space used is still $O(n)$, even though the graph can't be stored in that little space.

By the way, this trick of calculating things on the fly is a common trick in logarithmic space computations. Another prominent example is showing that logspace reductions compose (i.e., if there are logspace reductions $A\to B\to C$ then there's a logspace reduction $A\to C$). What you'd like to do is just do the first reduction, store the result on a tape and then apply the second result to that; but you can't because the result of the first reduction might be too big to store. So, instead, you start with the second reduction. Every time you need to know some character of the output of the first reduction, you recompute it from scratch.

  • $\begingroup$ the solution from my post doesn't say how to get list of states. You said: "Both of these can be done easily, on the fly, from the description of the DFAs. ". I agree. But, we have no description of DFAs. For examaple, I am not sure that it is possible to generate a such information on the fly. $\endgroup$
    – Logic
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ note that authors in the solution say: "Thus, the problem can be decided in $NSPACE(log(2^{2n}))$ so it means that they claim that REACHABILITY algorithm operates on precomputed (not computed on the fly) automaton. $\endgroup$
    – Logic
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Logic Re your first comment, I brainfarted and have fixed it. I meant to say that the state set and transitions of the DFA can be generated easily on the fly from the description of the NFA. Re your second, it's saying that you can do reachability on a graph with $2^n$ vertices in space $O(\log n)$. It doesn't say that you have to write down the graph explicitly to do that. Remember that the accounting for the space used to solve a problem is only the working space: it doesn't include the space required to write the input or the output. And, in this case, we don't even write the input. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 15:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Logic Man, if I could write something without making a bunch of typos, this would be a whole lot easier. What I meant to say is that you can do reachability on a graph with $2^n$ vertices in space $O(\log 2^n)$. You can do it on a graph of that size because you don't have to write the whole graph down. To do it on the fly, you just need to remember your current state (some subset of the NFA's states) and figure out what set of states you can move to by a transition. Just use the subset construction, but only construct things when you need them and forget them again once they've been used. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 16:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Logic You can't use that much memory but you don't need to. As I keep saying, you don't have to write the whole graph down. I've edited the answer to try to explain. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 16:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.