Probabilities ease genetic logic

By Kimberly Patch, Technology Research News

Genetic algorithms are used to find optimum designs or answers to problems by mimicking the process of evolution: starting with a population of random solutions or designs, mixing traits, advancing the best new solutions or designs to the next generation, and repeating the process through thousands or millions of generations.

One challenge in using genetic algorithms is being able to efficiently handle the large amount of information generated during the process.

A common solution is to use several or even many parallel computer processors. This brings another challenge: finding an efficient way for parallel processors to pass information about the population back and forth.

Researchers from the University of Algarve in Portugal have devised a compact genetic algorithm that speeds the process by allowing a representation of the population as a whole to be passed back and forth rather than more voluminous information about individuals.

The algorithm could be used to leverage many network processors to solve large problems, much like the Seti@home project, said Lobo. Seti@home allows individuals to contribute home computer power to the effort to monitor radio waves from space. "People around the world could contribute... some of their idle computer time to run a compact genetic algorithm... to solve difficult optimization problems," he said.

The system runs a separate compact genetic algorithm on each of several processors. Each processor exchanges information with a central coordinator processor every once in awhile. This allows each processor to turn on or off at any given time so the system can scale to more or fewer processors. This also makes the system fault-tolerant -- it can keep going if one of the processors fails.

The algorithm belongs to a class of genetic algorithms known as probabilistic model building genetic algorithms, estimation of distribution algorithms, or iterated density evolutionary algorithms. This type of algorithm replaces the traditional methods of introducing variation into a population -- mixing traits and introducing mutations -- with a probabilistic model of the population from which samples are taken to obtain a new population of individuals.

The researchers' algorithm allows the processors to exchange the probabilistic model rather than a population of individuals, which cuts communication time because the model is much smaller than the population, according to Lobo.

"In traditional parallel genetic algorithms, population members need to be sent back and forth between the different processors," said Fernando Lobo, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Algarve. "With the compact genetic algorithm... we only need to send [a] probability vector, which can be transmitted much faster than the whole population," he said.

A probability vector is a sequence of probabilities that each represent the chance that a given bit in a string of bits is a 1 or a 0. The probability vector is determined by looking at all the bit strings that represent individuals and determining that, for instance, six out of ten first bits are one, four out of ten second bits are one, and so on.

The communications savings grows as the population grows, according to Lobo. A population of one million individuals and a 1,000-bit problem represents one gigabit of information; the compact genetic algorithm cuts this to 20,000 bits.

The drawback to this type of approach is the compact genetic algorithm does not capture dependencies, or relationships among variables, which means difficult problems must be solved in a brute-force way by testing every possible solution to a problem. This is also true of other parallel genetic algorithm architectures, said Lobo.

The work advances both theory and practice in a useful way by taking advantage of the memory compression possible in the compact genetic algorithm, said David Goldberg, an entrepreneurial engineering professor and director of the genetic algorithms laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Parallelism is a key technique for making genetic algorithms more efficient, said Goldberg. The researchers have extended the range of using parallelism by allowing compressed population information to be exchanged rather than individuals, he said. "Down the road, the exchange of compressed population models using higher-order linkage information should extend the technique for use in solving harder problems," he said.

The ultimate goal is to make genetic algorithms easier to use, said Lobo. "I'd like to see people using them without the need of understanding their internal mechanisms... in the same way as they use other types of artifacts," he said. For instance, anyone "can drive a car without knowing how a car engine works."

Lobo's research colleagues were Cláudio F. Lima and Hugo Mártires. The research was funded by the Portuguese Science Foundation.

Timeline:  > two years
Funding:   Government
TRN Categories:  Artificial Life and Evolutionary Computing
Story Type:   News
Related Elements:  Technical paper, "An Architecture for Massively Parallelization of the Compact Genetic Algorithm" the Computing Research Repository (CoRR) at


July 14/21, 2004

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