Choosing optimization algorithms

A friend wanted my opinion on optimization with genetic algorithms. I advised him to take a step back. Why am I so boring?

It’s all about engineering

It’s not that his idea was flawed: after all, he was tackling a difficult combinatorial, non-trivial problem, where genetic algorithms could have shined.

It’s just that trying the most complicated algorithm first is rarely a good idea. Just like for classification problems you shouldn’t try deep learning first, don’t rush for genetic algorithms for optimization. Be boring, be an engineer.

Modeling is most of the work

Focus on framing your problem as a well-defined optimization problem:

  1. What do you optimize? Continuous variables? Integers? Some object arrangement? A resource allocation? A flow? A path? Some distribution or belief? etc.
  2. For what objective function, score or fitness? Is it behaving nicely? Is finding any solution already great? Do you have multiple objectives?
  3. Under what constraints? Equalities or inequalities?

A clear modeling will lead you in the right direction. It will help you decouple what to optimize and how you optimize it.

Isn’t modeling… given?

Let’s take the following problem: you have a fleet of trucks. Each needs to go from a city to an other city. You goal is to minimize the number of trucks on the most-used road. Which route does each truck take?

  • What if some new anti-pollution regulation forbids trucks on specific roads? Requirements change quickly!
  • Now you need to send boxes in the trucks. Should you separate and solve sequentially the various subproblems (routing, box allocation…)?
  • Should you have variables for each road deciding whether each truck uses it?1. Should you precompute allowed routes in advance2?
  • Linear Programming is a great tool that forces you to write your model clearly. Still, some model tweaks may help the solver3.

Pick modelings wisely, and benchmark them.

Advice for meta-heuristics

First priority: the building blocks

  • a function that creates initial solutions. Again: what is the simplest way to describe a solution?
  • a fitness / validity / rejection function. This may involve a simpler optimization!
  • a function that makes modifications to a solution.

How do you optimize? Which optimization algorithm to choose?

GA is one of the few methods where you mix solutions (breeding, crossover). Usually you local perturbations (mutations) are good enough. So GA is the longest method to implement4. Keep that in mind and look at the many other ways to solve optimization problems!

  • If you can think of a greedy algorithm… try it!
  • Repeated hill-climbing should be the go-to benchmark.
  • Simulated annealing is generally a good and easy bet.
  • Tabu search has a good reputation for combinatorial optimization, and can be used as soon as you understand the structure of the possible mutations.
  • There are other population-based algos: bee/ant colonies…

Spend as little time as possible on the HOW at the beginning.

As long as you decouple what/how, solvers should be mostly plug and play. Once you have a few options to solve your problem, benchmark on multiple problem instances: quality-vs-size, speed-vs-size, preprocessing heuristics, scoring heuristics for subproblems…

Meta-heuristics: is it optimal yet?

There is often no way to know for sure. All you will ever get is benchmark on simpler problems. Measure your gap on those.

An imperfect optimization that scales is often better than an intractable optimum algorithm. Work no more, but no less than your ROI allows.

Always benchmark. When an optimization technique “works” but doesn’t scale, people are tempted to progressively narrow its search space through preprocessing. It ends up still being used in production, but becomes slow, under-performing and unmaintainable.


A decent background on optimization will be useful to many data scientists. When tasked with optimization problems, you should be able to say:

I have this problem, I am doing optimization of those parameters, and we settled with this technique to optimize. Here is our benchmark. Here would be the business impact of better performance.


  1. Those approaches are called link-path and node-link formulations respectively. [return]
  2. This will narrow the search space. A 5% quick heuristic is better that a preprocessing that reduces the search space and costs 5% optimality. [return]
  3. You may want to do some symmetry breaking, understand which (lazy) constraints are often not enforced… [return]
  4. At the beginning, be careful of spending too much time investigating GA-specific issues : implementation, breeding… Many people feel GA don’t achieve better than hill climbing, because of eventual lack of diversity on your population and costly fitness evaluations. Crossover could help for this. [return]

Arthur Flam

Entrepreneur, data scientist. Engineering algorithms at Samsung.

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