, 2 min read

# Probabilities and the C++ standard

The new C++ standard introduced hash functions and hash tables in the language (as “unordered maps”).
As every good programmer should know, hash tables only work well if collisions between keys are rare. That is, if you have two distinct keys *k*1 and *k*2, you want their hash values *h*(*k*1) and *h*(*k*2) to differ most of the time.

The C++ standard does not tell us how the keys are hashed but it gives us two rules:

- The value returned by
*h*(*k*) shall depend only on the argument*k*. - For two different values
*k*1 and*k*2, the probability that*h*(*k*1) and*h*(*k*2) “compare equal” (sic) should be very small.

The first rule says that *h*(*k*) must be deterministic. This is in contrast with languages like Java where the hash value can depend on a random number if you want (as long as the value remains the same through throughout the execution of a given program).

It is a reasonable rule. It means that if you are iterating through the keys of an “unordered set”, you will always visit the keys in the same order… no matter how many times you run your program.

It also means, unfortunately, that if you find two values such that *h*(*k*1) and *h*(*k*2), then they will always be equal, for every program and every execution of said programs.

The second rule is less reasonable. We have that *h*(*k*1) and *h*(*k*2) are constant values that are always the same. There is no random model involved. Yet, somehow, we want that the probability that they will be the same be low.

I am guessing that they mean that if you pick *k*1 and *k*2 randomly, the probability that they will hash to the same value is low, but I am not sure. If it is what they mean, then it is a very weak requirement: a vendor could simply hash strings down to their first character. That is a terrible hash function!

I am under the impression that the next revision of the C++ standard will fix this issue by following in Java’s footstep and allow hash functions to vary from one run of a program to another. That is, C++ will embrace random hashing. This will help us build safer software.