Coding interview Essentials

47. Count the bits

Count the bits


Computers use binary numeral system to store data and perform computations. In this system a digits are called bits and they are the smallest unit of data and can only have value \(0\) or \(1\). By using several bits we are able to encode information such as documents, music, books, maps, bitcoins, etc. Ultimately the binary numeral system is just a way of representing numbers and it is not really different from the decimal system we use everyday. A binary number is made up of one or more bits, the same way a decimal number is made up of several \(0-9\) digits. For instance, the binary number \(111111001000011111010110_2\) correspond to the decimal number \(16549846\).

In programming, binary numbers are often used as bitsets[^53] as a more efficient and memory cheat substitute to arrays of booleans; such use case is so common that in the STL we even have a dedicated class: . However a simple can be used as a bitset and in this chapter we will calculate some statistics on the number of bits that are set to in a int/bitset (pretty much equivalently to what the function does) for a range of numbers.

This problem is aimed at testing our basic bit manipulation skills and all we need to get a woking solution is knowing how to use some basic bit logic operations and functions like shift and AND. Besides this basic solution we will also have a look at two more sophisticated and efficient solutions: the former based on DP and the second based on a property of powers of two.

Problem statement

[example:count_bits:exercice1] Given a non negative integer number \(n\) return an array \(B\) of size \(n+1\) where \(B_i\) contains the number of bits set in the number \(i\).

Given \(n = 5\) the function returns \(B = \{0,1,1,2,1,2,2\}\)

Clarification Questions

Can we assume \(n\) is always positive?

Yes, \(n \geq 0\).


Naïve approach solution

This is an easy problem. All we have to do is to use brute-force to count the number of bits set in each and every number \(0\) to \(n+1\). Each number has a fixed size which on most the common modern implementation is \(32\)-bit () and therefore, we can come up with a \(\Theta(32n)\) solution.

Counting the bits of a given integer can even be done with compiler intrinsics as which can map directly when supported by the hardware to fast machine instructions or by using some simple bit manipulation trickery. From we can also use the function, together with a several other bit related functions (in the header ).

Listing [list:count_bits:bruteforce] shows an implementation of this idea where we use our own version of the bit counting function for the sake of showing how works and to be ready in (likely) case the interviewer asks us to dig deeper in this direction.

The tunction works by repeatedly inspecting the least significant bit of the input \(num\) to check if it is set or not and then, it shifts it to the right by one position so that the at the next iteration another bit is inspected. The value of the least significant bit of a integer \(n\) can be retrieved by using the following expression: . The operator performs the bitwise AND between \(n\) and \(1\). Because \(1\) is a number having only the least significant bit set (its binary representation is, assuming integers have size 32 bits \(00000000000000000000000000000001\)), the result of the aforementioned epxresssion is when the least significant bit of \(n\) is set, and false otherwise: the bitwise AND between every other bits other than the least significant of \(n\) and \(1\) is always \(0\).

Listing 1: Brute-force solution where we manually count the number of bits for each number.

unsigned my_pop_count(unsigned num)
  int ans = 0;
  while (num)
    ans += num & 1;  // is the last bit set
    num >>= 1;       // shift num one bit to the right
  return ans;

std::vector<int> count_bits_bruteforce(const unsigned n)
  std::vector<int> ans;
  ans.reserve(n + 1);
  for (unsigned num = 0; num <= n; num++)
    // alternatively std::popcount or __builtin_popcount (only on gcc)
    const int num_bit_set = my_pop_count(num);
    assert(std::popcount(num) == num_bit_set);

  return ans;

DP solution

This problem can be solved more elegantly and efficiently using dynamic programming. In the approach discussed in this section we will see how we can craft a solution that is correct and does not incur a factor \(32\) penalty the solution shown in Listing [list:count_bits:bruteforce] costs).

The idea is that the number of bits set for a given number \(n\) is equal to the number of bits set in , \(n\) shifted one position to the right (\(n\) with the last bit removed, a number that is always smaller or equal than the number we started with), plus one if the removed bit was \(1\).

For instance consider \(x=2730_{10} = 101010101010_2\). The least significant bit of \(x\) is \(0\) therefore its number of bits set is equal to the number of bits set of \(y=1365_{10} = 10101010101_2\) (last bit of \(x\) removed). For the same reasons the number of bits set in \(y\) is one (because the last bit of \(y\) is \(1\)) plus the number of bits set in \(y=682_{10} = 1010101010_2\)(last bit of \(y\) removed). We can follow this line of reasoning until we reach \(0\) that has zero bits set.

Given that every time we remove a bit we are solving a problem for a smaller number and, because the solution for a number \(x\) can be required to count the bits of many numbers \(n>x\), we can adopt DP(see Appendix [sect:appendix:DP]): this problem exposes optimal substructures as well as overlapping subproblems properties. In a DP solution we will use a DP table \(B\) containing the information about the number of bits set for the numbers, which we initially fill only for the number \(0\). We will then follow a bottom-up approach where we start solving problems for \(x=1,2,\ldots,n\). When we reach a given number \(y\) we have already solved and stored into \(B\) the answers for every number less than \(y\), and at that point we are ready to calculate the answer for \(y\). Because the answers for all of these numbers smaller than \(y\) are stored in \(B\) we do not need to recompute them.

Listing [list:count_bits:DP] shows an implementation of this approach. A slighlty shorter possibly less readable version of Listing [list:count_bits:DP] is shown in Listing [list:count_bits:DP_short].

Listing 2: DP solution where we calculate the bits for a given number from the its last bit and the answer of the number resulting from removing that last bit.

std::vector<int> count_bits_DP(const unsigned n)
  std::vector<int> B;
  B.reserve(n + 1);
  for (unsigned num = 1; num <= n; num++)
    const unsigned last_bit       = num & 1;
    const unsigned pop_count_rest = B[num >> 1];
    B.push_back(last_bit + pop_count_rest);
  return B;

Listing 3: Shorter version of Listing \ref{list:count_bits:DP}.

std::vector<int> count_bits_DP_short(const unsigned n)
  std::vector<int> B(n + 1, 0);
  for (unsigned num = 1; num <= n; num++)
    B[num] = B[num >> 1] + (num & 1);
  return B;

Another efficient approach

There is another way of approching this problem that is quite different yet as fast from the DP solution we discussed above.

Let’s start by noticing that any power of \(2\) always has one and only one bit set. For instance, \(2^2\) has the bit at index \(2\) set and the rest of the bits not set. The same applies for any other power of two \(2^k\) where only the bit at index \(k\) is set. All the numbers from \(2^k\) to \(2^{k+1}-1\) can be obtained by concatenating a bit set (the \(1\) at index \(k\)) as a prefix with all the binary representations of the numbers from \(0\) to \(2^k-1\) (all the numbers smaller than \(2^k\)).

For instance let’s take \(k=4\) as an example. All the numbers from \(2^4 = 16\) to \(2^5-1 = 31\) can be obtained as shown below:

  • \(16 = 16+0 = 10000_2+ 0_2\)

  • \(17 = 16+1 = 10000_2+ 1_2\)

  • \(18 = 16+2 = 10000_2+ 10_2\)

  • \(19 = 16+3 = 10000_2+ 11_2\)

  • \(20 = 16+4 = 10000_2+ 100_2\)

  • \(21 = 16+5 = 10000_2+ 101_2\)

  • \(22 = 16+6 = 10000_2+ 110_2\)

  • \(23 = 16+7 = 10000_2+ 111_2\)

  • \(24 = 16+8 = 10000_2+ 1000_2\)

  • \(25 = 16+9 = 10000_2+ 1001_2\)

  • \(\ldots\)

  • \(31 = 16+15 = 10000_2+ 1111_2\)

This fact allows us to calculate the answer for all the numbers from \(16\) to \(31\) by adding one to the answer of the numbers from \(0\) to \(15\) for which, crucially, we already have an answer.

The same applies for smaller \(k\)s. For \(k=2\) we have:

  • \(4 = 4+0 = 100_2+ 0_2\)

  • \(5 = 4+1 = 100_2+ 1_2\)

  • \(6 = 4+2 = 100_2+ 10_2\)

  • \(7 = 4+3 = 100_2+ 11_2\)


We can use this idea to build a fast and efficient solution as shown in Listing [list:count_bits:powers].

Listing 4: Alternative efficient solution where the number of bits set in a integer $k$ is found by using the number of bits set for a smaller integer: $k-(2^{\lfloor log_2{k \rfloor}})$ (see Equation \ref{eq:count_bits:dpformula_powers}).

std::vector<int> count_bits_DP_powers(const unsigned n)
  std::vector<int> B(n + 1, 0);
  for (int i = 1, next_pow = 2, back_idx = 0; i <= n; i++)
    if (i == next_pow)
      // next power of two.
      next_pow *= 2;
      // we use all the solutions from the start to build the next ones
      back_idx = 0;
    B[i] = 1 + B[back_idx++];
  return B;

The answers are calculated incrementally starting with the integers \(0\), \(1\) and \(2\) which have \(0\),\(1\) and \(1\) bits set, respectively. Then we can calculate the answer for \(2\) and \(3\) (from \(2^2\) to \(2^3-1\)) by adding \(1\) to the answers for \(0\) and \(1\). For the numbers from \(4\) to \(7\) (\(2^2\) to \(2^3-1\)) we add \(1\) to the answers to \(0\), \(1\) and \(2\) and \(3\), respectively. For the numbers from \(8\) to \(15\) (\(2^3\) to \(2^4-1\)) we add \(1\) to the answers for \(0, 1, \ldots,7\). We keep doing this, adding \(1\) to all the numbers from \(0\) to \(2^k-1\) in order to calculate the answer for all the numbers from \(2^k\) to \(2^{k+1}-1\), until we reach \(n+1\). The complexity of this approach is \(\Theta(n)\) and also in this case we do not pay the constant factor associated with a brute-force count of the bits in an integer.

Note that the same approach can be easily adapted to obtain a top-down implementation where we memoize and reuse the answers using a cache. We leave this as an exercise for the reader [^54].