Genetic Algorithms and What They
Can Do For You
How Does a Genetic Algorithm Work?
A genetic algorithm solves optimization problems by creating a population or
group of possible solutions to the problem. The individuals in this population
will carry chromosomes that are the values of variables of the problem.
The genetic algorithm
actually solves your problem by allowing the less fit individuals in the
population to die (peacefully) and selectively breeding the most fit individuals
(the ones that solve the problem best). This process is called selection, as in
selection of the fittest. The genetic algorithm will take two fit individuals
and mate them (a process called crossover). The offspring of the mated pair will
receive some of the characteristics of the mother, and some of the father.
In nature, offspring often
have some slight abnormalities, called mutations. Usually these mutations are
disabling and inhibit the ability of the children to survive, but once in a
while they improve the fitness of the individual (like toes stuck together in a
web-like fashion). The genetic algorithm similarly occasionally causes mutations
in its populations by randomly changing the value of a variable.
After the genetic
algorithm mates fit individuals and mutates some, the population undergoes a
generation change. The population will then consist of offspring plus a few of
the older individuals, which the genetic algorithm allows to survive to the next
generation because they are the most fit in the population, and we will want to
keep them breeding. These most fit individuals are called elite individuals.
After dozens or even
hundreds of "generations", a population eventually emerges wherein the
individuals will solve the problem very well. In fact, the most fit (elite)
individual will be an optimum or close to optimum solution.
The processes of
selection, crossover, and mutation are called genetic operators.
There are many opportunities for optimization in the business world
Some of the best known are optimizing schedules and work flow to minimize
cost and time, while maximizing output.
Some of the oldest types of optimizers use simple "exhaustive search",
meaning that every possible combination is tried to see what is the best
one. This is a very accurate approach, since you are bound to find the
combination of variables - eventually. However, it is a very inefficient
approach, because whenever there are more than a few thousand
it takes too long to try them all. That is why users of exhaustive search
optimizers tend to limit the number of variables they use, or tend to
the number of values these variables can take.
The genetic algorithm, by contrast, does not try every possible
combination. It attempts instead to intelligently get closer and closer
the best solution. Therefore, far more variables can be utilized, and you
can allow all values of a variable. Optimization can still take a good
deal of time if you give a GA a fair number of variables, but it will be doing
much more work in that amount of time.
More efficient optimizers than exhaustive search optimizers are in use.
they are not genetic algorithms, however, they are most likely only
searching one section of the search space at a time. Genetic algorithms
searching dozens or hundreds of parts of the search space simultaneously.
This means they are less likely to become stuck in "local minima" as the
others quite often do. (Local minima are decent solutions that the
optimizer can never get out of in order to find better solutions.)
There are yet other types of optimizers in use today that use Newtonian
search techniques. While these are very fast, the biggest drawback they
have is that they require the search space to be continuous or
differentiable. Genetic algorithms impose no restrictions on the space