Paper with Impact (G. Pesant)

I've been offered the difficult job of writing the sequel to Patrick Prosser's very entertaining yet insightful column on an old influential paper. I don't think I can be as entertaining but hopefully I'll present a complementary view of the same era, now far, far away…

My story takes place around the same time as Pat's, late 1990, as I was about to embark on a Ph.D. after a few months spent in industry which urged me back to graduate studies. It was a good company but my timing was bad: all development had been temporarily halted because much documentation on a government software contract was overdue, and guess who had to help out even though not a single line of code was his… So back to graduate school I went with a Master's degree in computational geometry in my pocket and a recent interest in logic programming. As Pat pointed out, these were pretty early days for CP and one often wandered alone on the path to discovery. There weren't very many supervisors who were well versed in the area. Mine was an expert in logic programming and he had recently heard about CP (actually CLP, but more on this later). And the very first paper he gave me to read (yes, made of real paper, not the electronic kind) is the one I'll share with you.

It was definitely an influential paper personally because it got me started in the research area that I've been exploring for almost 25 years. But I suspect that it also had a wider impact since it was brought to a large audience. This wasn't the most technical paper published in a very specialized journal, though it did not shy away from theoretical foundations, but a paper telling the readership of Communications of the ACM about an exciting new field. Jacques Cohen, an early CP enthusiast, published in the July 1990 issue a paper simply entitled "Constraint Logic Programming Languages". It begins with a full-page illustration of famous magician Harry Houdini bound and gagged in a box with swords being thrust in every which way. What a great image! You will have guessed that the swords are the constraints, and we are left worrying about poor Houdini desperately looking for a solution. But he can work his magic from inside the box, and if ever the swords prove too much for him, the reader is told "Don't fret over the fate of our besieged character. In the world of non-determinism and constraints, he will regain life once the killer sword is withdrawn. Nonetheless, his destiny may remain uncertain until the supply of swords is exhausted." I think today we can still relate to that description of our field. (By the way I could very well have chosen another paper in the same issue, written by Alain Colmerauer and introducing Prolog III, the grandfather of constraint programming languages.)

I think Pat would agree that he himself came from the planet CSP --- and I was born on the not so distant planet CLP. Only later would the respective middle letters be dropped to merge into what is now known as CP. Back on CLP, constraint satisfaction arose naturally as an extension of unification, at the heart of logic programming. It fixed the non-declarativeness of arithmetic in Prolog and opened the door to reasoning about new domains. The introduction of the CLP(X) schema, with its most famous representative CLP(R), made that explicit. Finite combinatorics were not as prominent as they are today in CP --- Cohen's paper spoke of infinite trees, lists, and real closed fields. Of Borning's groundbreaking work on constraints for GUIs. Of constraints appearing both as input and output of a program. He talked of satisfaction completeness for a constraint domain: the requirement that there exist an efficient algorithm to decide whether a set of constraints admits a solution, and implicitly that we apply it every time a constraint is added to that set. Today we almost exclusively work with finite domain constraints and their incomplete algorithms (the postponement of non-linear constraints in CLP(R) is an early example of living with an incomplete solver). The importance of simplification, canonical representation, and especially incrementality had already been recognized for constraint solvers. All the efforts into the design and implementation of constraint programming languages that followed have been extremely important to bring that technology outside of our community and make an impact on society.

Looking back, I think merging the two worlds of CSP and CLP made us stronger as a community but, as can be expected, we also lost some of the diversity, and people, in the field.

Jacques Cohen went on to serve as Editor-in-Chief of CACM (1992-1996). He also served on my Ph.D jury.

Gilles Pesant
May 2014

  author    = {Jacques Cohen},
  title     = {Constraint Logic Programming Languages},
  journal   = {Commun. ACM},
  volume    = {33},
  number    = {7},
  year      = {1990},
  pages     = {52-68}

Link to electronic edition