Chapter 7: Mechanisms in Programs and Nature

Section 8: The Problem of Satisfying Constraints

Combinatorial optimization

The problem of coming as close as possible to satisfying constraints in an arrangement of black and white squares is a simple example of a combinatorial optimization problem. In general, such problems involve minimization of a quantity that is determined by the arrangement of some set of discrete elements. A typical example is finding a placement of components in a 2D circuit so that the total length of wire necessary to connect these components is minimized (related to the so-called travelling salesman problem). In using iterative procedures to solve combinatorial optimization problems, one issue is what kind of changes should be made at each step. In the main text we considered changing just one square at a time. But one can also change larger numbers of squares, or, for example, interchange whole blocks of squares. In general, the larger the changes made, the faster one can potentially approach a minimum, but the greater the chance is of overshooting. In the main text, we assumed that at each step we should always move closer to the minimum, or at least not get further away. But in trying to get over the kind of bumps shown in the third curve on page 346 it is sometimes better also to allow some probability of moving away from the minimum at a particular step. One approach is simulated annealing, in which one starts with this probability being large, and progressively decreases it. The notion is that at the beginning, one wants to move easily over the coarse features of a jagged curve, but then later home in on details. If the curve has a nested form, which appears to be the case in some combinatorial optimization problems, then this scheme can be expected to be at least somewhat effective. For the problems considered in the main text, simulated annealing provides some improvement but not much.

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From Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [citation]