Say we have $n$ sets $A_1,\dots,A_n$ with elements from a universal set $U$.

We want to compute the cardinality of $\cup_{i=1}^n 2^{A_i}$ or at least decide on non-trivial bounds. Is this problem NP-complete?

The obvious counting algorithm is $\mathcal{O}(n 2^m)$ where $m = \max_i |A_i| \leq |U|$.

I tried using the principle of inclusion-exclusion since intersections of power sets has nicer behavior. This gives $\mathcal{O}(2^n m)$ solution. I suspect there might be a nice reduction from set-cover or by recasting the sets and elements as vertices in a bipartite graph, but I haven't had any luck.

In the special case where our set-system is a sunflower with core $|Y| = k$, then $|\cup_{i=1}^n 2^{A_i}| = \sum_{i=1}^n 2^{|A_i|} - (n - 1) 2^k$. I thought that maybe the sunflower lemma could reduce the problem to a smaller size, but I can't see how to create a new problem by taking out a sunflower.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It is #P-complete. There is a reduction from counting vertex covers. $\endgroup$
    – Laakeri
    Jan 30, 2022 at 19:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Laakeri Can you elaborate on the reduction? $\endgroup$ Jan 30, 2022 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ In the case when each element in $U$ is in at most $d=O(1)$ sets, I guess inclusion-exclusion gives you an $O(n^d)$-time algorithm. $\endgroup$
    – Neal Young
    Feb 7, 2022 at 21:50

1 Answer 1


It is $\#P$-complete. Here is a reduction from counting vertex covers. Let $G = (V,E)$. We wish to count the number of sets of vertices that are not vertex covers. We observe a set $X \subseteq V$ is not a vertex cover if and only if there exists an edge $uv \in E$ so that $X \subseteq V \setminus \{u,v\}$. Now, we have that the family of all sets of vertices that are not vertex covers is equal to $\bigcup_{uv \in E} 2^{V \setminus \{u,v\}}$.


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