This week, at the Rmetrics conference, there has been an interesting discussion about heuristic optimization. The starting point was simple: in complex optimization problems (here we mean with a lot of local maxima, for instance), we do not necessarily need extremely advanced algorithms that do converge extremly fast, if we cannot ensure that they reach the optimum. Converging extremely fast, with a great numerical precision to some point (that is not the point we're looking for) is useless. And some algorithms might be much slower, but at least, it is much more likely to converge to the optimum. Wherever we start from.
We have experienced that with Mathieu, while we were looking for maximum likelihood of our MINAR process: genetic algorithm have performed extremely well. The idea is extremly simple, and natural. Let us consider as a starting point the following algorithm,

  1. Start from some 
  2. At step , draw a point  in a neighborhood of  
  • either  then  
  • or  then 
This is simple (if you do not enter into details about what such a neighborhood should be). But using that kind of algorithm, you might get trapped and attracted to some local optima if the neighborhood is not large enough. An alternative to this technique is the following: it might be interesting to change a bit more, and instead of changing when we have a maximum, we change if we have almost a maximum. Namely at step ,
  • either then  
  • or  then 
for some . To illustrate the idea, consider the following function
> f=function(x,y) { r <- sqrt(x^2+y^2);
+ 1.1^(x+y)*10 * sin(r)/r }
(on some bounded support). Here, by picking noise and  values arbitrary, we have obtained the following scenarios
> x0=15
> MX=matrix(NA,501,2)
> MX[1,]=runif(2,-x0,x0)
> k=.5
> for(s in 2:501){
+  bruit=rnorm(2)
+  X=MX[s-1,]+bruit*3
+  if(X[1]>x0){X[1]=x0}
+  if(X[1]<(-x0)){X[1]=-x0}
+  if(X[2]>x0){X[2]=x0}
+  if(X[2]<(-x0)){X[2]=-x0}
+  if(f(X[1],X[2])+k>f(MX[s-1,1],
+    MX[s-1,2])){MX[s,]=X}
+  if(f(X[1],X[2])+k<=f(MX[s-1,1],
+    MX[s-1,2])){MX[s,]=MX[s-1,]}
+}

 

It does not always converge towards the optimum,

and sometimes, we just missed it after being extremely unlucky

Note that if we run 10,000 scenarios (with different random noises and starting point), in 50% scenarios, we reach the maxima. Or at least, we are next to it, on top.
What if we compare with a standard optimization routine, like Nelder-Mead, or quasi gradient ?Since we look for the maxima on a restricted domain, we can use the following function,

> g=function(x) f(x[1],x[2])
> optim(X0, g,method="L-BFGS-B",
+ lower=-c(x0,x0),upper=c(x0,x0))$par
In that case, if we run the algorithm with 10,000 random starting point, this is where we end, below on the right (while the heuristic technique is on the left),

In only 15% of the scenarios, we have been able to reach the region where the maximum is.
So here, it looks like an heuristic method works extremelly well, if do not need to reach the maxima with a great precision. Which is usually the case actually.