Unbounded Binary Search Example (Find the point where a monotonically increasing function becomes positive first time)

Given a function ‘int f(unsigned int x)’ which takes a non-negative integer ‘x’ as input and returns an integer as output. The function is monotonically increasing with respect to value of x, i.e., the value of f(x+1) is greater than f(x) for every input x. Find the value ‘n’ where f() becomes positive for the first time. Since f() is monotonically increasing, values of f(n+1), f(n+2),… must be positive and values of f(n-2), f(n-3), .. must be negative.
Find n in O(logn) time, you may assume that f(x) can be evaluated in O(1) time for any input x.

A simple solution is to start from i equals to 0 and one by one calculate value of f(i) for 1, 2, 3, 4 .. etc until we find a positive f(i). This works, but takes O(n) time.

Can we apply Binary Search to find n in O(Logn) time? We can’t directly apply Binary Search as we don’t have an upper limit or high index. The idea is to do repeated doubling until we find a positive value, i.e., check values of f() for following values until f(i) becomes positive.

Let 'high' be the value of i when f() becomes positive for first time.

Can we apply Binary Search to find n after finding ‘high’? We can apply Binary Search now, we can use ‘high/2’ as low and ‘high’ as high indexes in binary search. The result n must lie between ‘high/2’ and ‘high’.

Number of steps for finding ‘high’ is O(Logn). So we can find ‘high’ in O(Logn) time. What about time taken by Binary Search between high/2 and high? The value of ‘high’ must be less than 2*n. The number of elements between high/2 and high must be O(n). Therefore, time complexity of Binary Search is O(Logn) and overall time complexity is 2*O(Logn) which is O(Logn).

#include <stdio.h>
int binarySearch(int low, int high); // prototype

// Let's take an example function as f(x) = x^2 - 10*x - 20
// Note that f(x) can be any monotonocally increasing function
int f(int x) { return (x*x - 10*x - 20); }

// Returns the value x where above function f() becomes positive
// first time.
int findFirstPositive()
    // When first value itself is positive
    if (f(0) > 0)
        return 0;

    // Find 'high' for binary search by repeated doubling
    int i = 1;
    while (f(i) <= 0)
        i = i*2;

    //  Call binary search
    return binarySearch(i/2, i);

// Searches first positive value of f(i) where low <= i <= high
int binarySearch(int low, int high)
    if (high >= low)
        int mid = low + (high - low)/2; /* mid = (low + high)/2 */

        // If f(mid) is greater than 0 and one of the following two
        // conditions is true:
        // a) mid is equal to low
        // b) f(mid-1) is negative
        if (f(mid) > 0 && (mid == low || f(mid-1) <= 0))
            return mid;

        // If f(mid) is smaller than or equal to 0
        if (f(mid) <= 0)
            return binarySearch((mid + 1), high);
        else // f(mid) > 0
            return binarySearch(low, (mid -1));

    /* Return -1 if there is no positive value in given range */
    return -1;

/* Driver program to check above functions */
int main()
    printf("The value n where f() becomes positive first is %d",
    return 0;


The value n where f() becomes positive first is 12

Related Article:
Exponential Search

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