NCF Boolean functions

I recently learned about a new class of seemingly complicated, but in fact very simple functions which are called by several names, but perhaps most commonly as NCF Boolean functions (NCF is an abbreviation for “nested canalyzing function,” a term used by mathematical biologists). These functions were independently introduced by theoretical computer scientists in the 1960s using the term unate cascade functions. As described in [JRL2007] and [LAMAL2013], these functions have applications in a variety of scientific fields. This post describes these functions.

A Boolean function of n variables is simply a function f:GF(2)^n\to GF(2). Denote the GF(2)-vector space of such functions by B(n). We write an element of this space as f(x_1,x_2,\dots,x_n), where the variables x_i will be called coordinate variables. Let
Res_{x_i=a}:B(n)\to B(n-1)
denote the restriction map sending f(x_1,x_2,\dots,x_n) to f(x_1,x_2,\dots,x_{i-1},a,x_{i+1},\dots, x_n). In this post, the cosets
H_{i,a,n}=\{x=(x_1,x_2,\dots,x_n) \in GF(2)^n\ |\ x_i=a\}
will be called coordinate hyperplanes (a \in GF(2), 1\leq i\leq n). A function in B(n) which is constant along some coordinate hyperplane is called canalyzing. An NCF function is a function f\in B(n) which (a) is constant along some coordinate hyperplane H_{i_1,a_1,n}, (b) whose restriction f_1 = Res_{x_{i_1}=a_1}(f)\in B(n-1) is constant along some coordinate hyperplane H_{i_2,a_2,n-1}\subset GF(2)^{n-1}, (c) whose restriction f_2 = Res_{x_{i_2}=a_2}(f_1)\in B(n-2) is constant along some coordinate hyperplane H_{i_2,a_2,n-2}\subset GF(2)^{n-2}, (d) and so on. This “nested” inductive definition might seem complicated, but to a computer it’s pretty simple and, to boot, it requires little memory to store.

If 1\leq i\leq n and x=(x_1,x_2,\dots,x_n) \in GF(2)^n then let x^i\in GF(2)^n denote the vector whose i-th coordinate is flipped (bitwise). The sensitivity of f\in B(n) at x is
s(f,x) = |\{i\ |\ 1\leq i\leq n, f(x)\not= f(x^i)\}|. Roughly speaking, it’s the number of single-bit changes in x that change the value of f(x). The (maximum) sensitivity is the quantity
s(f)=max_x s(f,x). The block sensitivity is defined similarly, but you allow blocks of indices of coordinates to by flipped bitwise, as opposed to only one. It’s possible to

  • compute the sensitivity of any NCF function,
  • show the block sensitivity is equal to the sensitivity,
  • compute the cardinality of the set of all monotone NCF functions.

For details, see for example Li and Adeyeye [LA2012].

[JRL2007] A.S. Jarrah, B. Raposa, R. Laubenbachera, “Nested Canalyzing, Unate Cascade, and Polynomial Functions,” Physica D. 2007 Sep 15; 233(2): 167–174.

[LA2012] Y. Li, J.O. Adeyeye, “Sensitivity and block sensitivity of nested canalyzing function,” ArXiV 2012 preprint. (A version of this paper was published later in Theoretical Comp. Sci.)

[LAMAL2013] Y. Li, J.O. Adeyeye, D. Murrugarra, B. Aguilar, R. Laubenbacher, “Boolean nested canalizing functions: a comprehensive analysis,” ArXiV, 2013 preprint.

Boolean functions from the graph-theoretic perspective

This is a very short introductory survey of graph-theoretic properties of Boolean functions.

I don’t know who first studied Boolean functions for their own sake. However, the study of Boolean functions from the graph-theoretic perspective originated in Anna Bernasconi‘s thesis. More detailed presentation of the material can be found in various places. For example, Bernasconi’s thesis (e.g., see [BC]), the nice paper by P. Stanica (e.g., see [S], or his book with T. Cusick), or even my paper with Celerier, Melles and Phillips (e.g., see [CJMP], from which much of this material is literally copied).

For a given positive integer n, we may identify a Boolean function

f:GF(2)^n\to GF(2),
with its support

\Omega_f = \{x\in GF(2)^n\ |\ f(x)=1\}.

For each S\subset GF(2)^n, let \overline{S} denote the set of complements \overline{x}=x+(1,\dots,1)\in GF(2)^n, for x\in S, and let \overline{f}=f+1 denote the complementary Boolean function. Note that


where S^c denotes the complement of S in GF(2)^n. Let


denote the cardinality of the support. We call a Boolean function even (resp., odd) if \omega_f is even (resp., odd). We may identify a vector in GF(2)^n with its support, or, if it is more convenient, with the corresponding integer in \{0,1, \dots, 2^n-1\}. Let

b:\{0,1, \dots, 2^n-1\} \to GF(2)^n

be the binary representation ordered with least significant bit last (so that, for example, b(1)=(0,\dots, 0, 1)\in GF(2)^n).

Let H_n denote the $2^n\times 2^n$ Hadamard matrix defined by (H_n)_{i,j} = (-1)^{b(i)\cdot b(j)}, for each i,j such that 0\leq i,j\leq n-1. Inductively, these can be defined by

H_1 = \left( \begin{array}{cc} 1 & 1\\ 1 & -1 \\ \end{array} \right), \ \ \ \ \ \ H_n = \left( \begin{array}{cc} H_{n-1} & H_{n-1}\\ H_{n-1} & -H_{n-1} \\ \end{array} \right), \ \ \ \ \ n>1.
The Walsh-Hadamard transform of f is defined to be the vector in {\mathbb{R}}^{2^n} whose kth component is

({\mathcal{H}} f)(k) = \sum_{i \in \{0,1,\ldots,2^n-1\}}(-1)^{b(i) \cdot b(k) + f(b(i))} = (H_n (-1)^f)_k,

where we define (-1)^f as the column vector where the ith component is

(-1)^f_i = (-1)^{f(b(i))},

for i = 0,\ldots,2^n-1.

A Boolean function of three variables cannot be bent. Let f be defined by:

\begin{array}{c|cccccccc} x_2 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 1 & 1 & 1 & 1 \\ x_1 & 0 & 0 & 1 & 1 & 0 & 0 & 1 & 1 \\ x_0 & 0 & 1 & 0 & 1 & 0 & 1 & 0 & 1 \\ \hline (-1)^f & 1 & -1 & 1 & -1 & 1 & -1 & 1 & -1 \\ {\mathcal{H}}f & 0 & 8 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\ \end{array}
This is simply the function f(x_0,x_1,x_2)=x_0. It is even because

\Omega_f = \{ (0,0,1), (0,1,1), (1,0,1), (1,1,1) \},\ \mbox{ so } \ \omega = 4.

Here is some Sage code verifying this:

sage: from sage.crypto.boolean_function import *
sage: f = BooleanFunction([0,1,0,1,0,1,0,1])
sage: f.algebraic_normal_form()
sage: f.walsh_hadamard_transform()
(0, -8, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0)

(The Sage method walsh_hadamard_transform is off by a sign from the definition we gave.) We will return to this example later.

Let X=(V,E) be the Cayley graph of f:

V = GF(2)^n,\ \ \ \ E = \{(v,w)\in V\times V\ |\ f(v+w)=1\}.
We shall assume throughout and without further mention that f(0)\not=1, so X has no loops. In this case, X is an \omega-regular graph having r connected components, where

r = |GF(2)^n/{\rm Span}(\Omega_f)|.

For each vertex v\in V, the set of neighbors N(v) of v is given by


where v is regarded as a vector and the addition is induced by the usual vector addition in GF(2)^n. Let A = (A_{ij}) be the 2^n\times 2^n adjacency matrix of X, so

A_{ij} = f(b(i)+b(j)), \ \ \ \ \ 0\leq i,j\leq 2^n-1.

Returning to the previous example, we construct its Cayley graph.

First, attach afsr.sage from [C] in your Sage session.

     sage: flist = [0,1,0,1,0,1,0,1]
     sage: V = GF(2)ˆ3
     sage: Vlist = V.list()
     sage: f = lambda x: GF(2)(flist[Vlist.index(x)])
     sage: X = boolean_cayley_graph(f, 3)
     sage: X.adjacency_matrix()
     [0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1]
     [1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0]
     [0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1]
     [1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0]
     [0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1]
     [1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0]
     [0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1]
     [1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0]
     sage: X.spectrum()
     [4, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, -4]

In her thesis, Bernasconi found a relationship between the spectrum of the Cayley graph X,

{\rm Spectrum}(X) = \{\lambda_k\ |\ 0\leq k\leq 2^n-1\},

(the eigenvalues \lambda_k of the adjacency matrix A) to the Walsh-Hadamard transform \mathcal H f = H_n (-1)^f. Note that f and (-1)^f are related by the equation f=\frac 1 2 (e - (-1)^f), where e=(1,1,...,1). She discovered the relationship

\lambda_k = \frac 1 2 (H_n e - \mathcal H f)_k

between the spectrum of the Cayley graph X of a Boolean function and the values of the Walsh-Hadamard transform of the function. Therefore, the spectrum of X, is explicitly computable as an expression in terms of f.


[BC] A. Bernasconi and B. Codenotti, Spectral analysis of Boolean functions as a graph eigenvalue problem, IEEE Trans. Computers 48(1999)345-351.

[CJMP] Charles Celerier, David Joyner, Caroline Melles, David Phillips, On the Hadamard transform of monotone Boolean functions, Tbilisi Mathematical Journal, Volume 5, Issue 2 (2012), 19-35.

[S] P. Stanica, Graph eigenvalues and Walsh spectrum of Boolean functions, Integers 7(2007)\# A32, 12 pages.

Here’s an excellent video of Pante Stanica on interesting applications of Boolean functions to cryptography (30 minutes):