Introduction to Genetic Algorithms

In response to my previous article about genetic algorithms for Ramsey theory, a few readers asked me to give a bit more of an introduction about genetic algorithms. Here you will find a beginner’s look at what a genetic algorithm is, what it is useful for, and how you can use one in your own work.

What is a genetic algorithm (GA)?

To begin with, let’s talk about what a genetic algorithm is, on its most basic level. The word genetic suggests something to do with biology. If you can reach way back to your high school science classes you might remember the basic genetic process: plants and animals are born, mate with one another, and create new generations. Over time, these generations tend to emphasize certain traits essential to survival while downplaying the weaker (recessive) traits. A genetic algorithm works much the same way. We come up with a population of possible solutions to a problem, “mate” them together, and look at our new solutions to see if they are any better. Over time, we can create solutions that converge to better and better values. This is useful when a problem is too complex to search all possibilities. Below you will see an image describing how a simple GA works.

GeneticAlgorithms (1)

Crossovers, fitness, mutation, oh my!

Before moving on, it would be useful to define some of the terms used above.

  • chromosome:  a proposed “solution” to the problem at hand. This is usually represented by a bitstring, that is to say, a list of 0’s and 1’s. It can also hold any other information that is crucial to our problem.
  • population: a collection of these “chromosomes” that we use to combine together and make new generations. The population represents the set of all the ideas that we have about this problem at the moment
  • fitness: the fitness of a chromosome is a number representing how good it is. That is, the fitness represents how good this solution is at solving our problem. An example of this is if you were trying to find the shortest route to get somewhere. Fitness for a problem like this would be a number representing the distance it takes for each path you could choose. In the end, you want to find the path with the shortest distance. Ultimately, the fitness function is defined by the programmer, and it can measure whatever you want.
  • mutation: mutation is the random entering of new data into the gene pool. Just like in biology, sometimes mutations occur and create things that were never intended. However, sometimes this inadvertent change can be to our advantage if we’re getting stuck. A common example of a mutation is to just change a small part of the chromosome, and move on.
  • crossover: the “crossover function” represents the operations that we do in order to “mate” two (or sometimes more) of our chromosomes. There are many different types of crossover techniques, some better for certain situations than others, but at the heart of it a crossover just represents a way to combine the “traits” of two or more chromosomes into a new “baby” chromosome to be inserted into our population. This is the bulk of a genetic algorithms’ work. As the population evolves and new generations of solutions are created, the goal is to keep around the solutions with “good” fitness, and get rid of the chromosomes that aren’t doing so well. The crossover is also user-defined, and tweaking it to optimize results is common.
  • termination condition: all good things must come to an end. While we in theory could just leave our algorithm running forever, that would not be very helpful because as I will discuss later in this post, solutions can’t keep getting better forever. In addition, sometimes you won’t actually get to the “best solution” and instead will converge on what’s called a “local minima/maxima”. When this happens, it means you’ve found an “okay” solution, but the population got flooded with many similar chromosomes and couldn’t improve itself after that point. Think of it this way: if everyone in the world were exactly the same, would you expect any different from their children? The termination condition you choose depends on the problem, but some common terminating conditions are:
    • a) finding the best solution (ideal)
    • b) running a preset number of generations and using that as a cutoff point
    • c) quitting after every member of the population falls within a certain similarity range (this means that no new/better solutions are likely to be produced)

But why would I want to do all this?

I know this seems like a pretty complicated process. Why not just use a computer to figure out the real solution instead of dancing around it in this complicated manner? Well, it turns out that’s not always possible…

Enter the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP). While there are many problems that are still very hard for us to solve with computers, this is one of the best known and most studied. It turns out that using a genetic algorithm is actually a pretty good approach and is much quicker than running an exhaustive search of all paths possible. Remember when I used the example of finding the shortest distance to go somewhere? That’s pretty much what this is. I’ve done a blog post on this before (see here). In the traveling salesman problem, there is a man that needs to visit a list of different cities, but he wants to get there and back as quickly as possible. Therefore, you need to find the shortest route to hit all the cities and return home. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, and as the number of cities grows, so too does the time it takes to find the right one. Very quickly it becomes implausible to check every possible path, so we use a genetic algorithm to help us weed out the bad ones.

Another example of how we would use a genetic algorithm is for graph theory problems that also have a huge number of possible solutions. You can see how I applied a genetic algorithm to the problem of Ramsey numbers here.

Okay, so how do I use this in my project?

It’s pretty simple. I know it looks complicated, but once you get everything apportioned out correctly it’s not that bad. Things to think about when applying a GA to a hard problem (we will use the Traveling Salesman Problem as an example here):

  • First decide what your “chromosomes” will look like. These are the meat of your population, and these are what will be mutated and crossovered in order to create better solutions. For the TSP, we will use a a sequence of numbers denoting what cities to visit and in what order. (For example, “1 5 4 2 3 1” describes a way you could make a circuit through 5 cities).
  • Decide on how fitness will be evaluated. This is important because members with better fitness will be the ones that stick around in your population and (hopefully) make your solutions better. In our problem, fitness refers to how far our chosen path takes us. The lower the fitness score, the shorter our travel is. We want to minimize this number with our algorithm.
  • Next we need to figure out what our crossover will be. This is very important to consider, because we want something that will take parts of both of our “parents” and combine them together in some way to make a “baby”. For traveling salesman, we can’t just grab some from one parent and some from the other, because we run the risk of duplicates. (we don’t want a path to look like “1 2 2 3 4 1”, city 2 is visited twice and we never get to city 5). Therefore, we have to use more sophisticated methods. I won’t go into them here but if you’re interested check out this wikipedia page for more info on crossover techniques.

What are the downsides?

“Every rose has its thorn,” as they say, and genetic algorithms are no different. What seems like a cure-all has its hindrances as well. As I mentioned before, GAs have a problem of converging too early on a value that’s not quite ideal. Often this takes many repetitions of running the program and fine tuning things such as population size and mutation rate. Sometimes happening upon the “best” solution is a product of randomness. But in a GA, we use this randomness to our advantage as much as we can. Another inherent problem is the fact that we have to program this framework around it. Using a GA is only viable if its an extremely complex problem that cannot be solved more efficiently. For example, using a GA to solve a 5 city TSP would be foolish. We can run through all those possibilities very quickly. On the other hand, bumping that up to 50 or 500 cities proves a much harder challenge.

In addition, using a genetic algorithm means you have to find a type of chromosome, fitness function, population size, and crossover that works for you. Pick the wrong values for these, and the program will behave less than optimally. Experimentation and continually tweaking the parameters of your model is necessary. In some genetic algorithms, the fitness function for even one chromosome can take quite a while to compute. This makes some genetic algorithms very slow to apply.

Where can I learn more?

I hope this has covered the basics of genetic algorithms and interested you in learning more. If you would like to see a project I have done involving GAs you can read A Genetic Algorithm Approach to Ramsey Theory, and for a broader range of discussion about the theory and applications of GAs check out the book An Introduction To Genetic Algorithms by Melanie Mitchell.

Hope you enjoyed this introduction to the wide world of genetic programming; if you have questions or suggestions please leave them in the comments below!

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2 comments on “Introduction to Genetic Algorithms

  1. […] previous posts: Genetic Algorithms for Ramsey Theory and The Travelling Santa Problem, as well as Introduction to Genetic Algorithms all have good examples of these types of […]

  2. […] for elusive properties called Ramsey Numbers. (For a refresher on genetic algorithms,  visit here, and for a refresher on Ramsey Numbers, visit here). I’ve been doing some work on it since […]

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