I first learnt about Genetic Algorithms almost exactly thirteen years ago, when it was taught to me by Prof. Deepak Khemani as part of a course on “artificial intelligence”. I remember liking the course a fair bit, and took a liking to the heuristics and “approximate solutions” after the mathematically intensive algorithms course of the previous semester.

The problem with the course, however, was that it didn’t require us to code the algorithms we had learnt (for which we were extremely thankful back then, since in term 5 of Computer Science at IIT Madras, this was pretty much the only course that didn’t involve too many¬†programming assignments).

As a result, while I had learnt all these heuristics (hill climbing, simulated annealing, taboo search, genetic algorithms, etc.) fairly well in theory, I had been at a complete loss as to how to implement any of them. And so far, during the course of my work, I had never had an opportunity to use any of these techniques. Until today that is.

I can’t describe the problem here since this is a client assignment, but when I had to pick a subset from a large set that satisfied certain properties, I knew I needed a method that would reach the best subset quickly. A “fitness function” quickly came to mind and it was obvious that I should use genetic algorithms to solve the problem.

The key with using genetic algorithms is that you need to be able to code the solution in the form of a string, and then define functions such as “crossover” and “mutation”. Given that I was looking for a subset, coding it as a string was rather easy, and since I had unordered subsets, the crossover was also easy – basic random number generation. Within fifteen minutes of deciding I should use GA, the entire algorithm was in my head. It was only a question of implementing it.

As I started writing the code, I started getting fantasies of being able to finish it in an hour and then write a blog post about it. As it happened, it took much longer. The first cut took some three hours (including some breaks), and it wasn’t particularly good, and was slow to converge. ¬†I tweaked things around a bit but things didn’t improve by much.

And that was when I realise that I had done the crossover wrong – when two strings have elements in common and need to be crossed over, I had to take care that elements in common did not repeat into the same “child” (needed the subsets to be of a certain length). So that needed some twist in the code. That done, the code still seemed inefficient.

I had been doing the crossover wrong. If I started off with 10 strings, I would form 5 pairs from them (each participating in exactly one pair) which would result in 10 new strings. And then I would put these 20 (original 10 and new 10) strings through a fitness test and discard the weakest 10. And iterate. The problem was that the strongest strings had as much of a chance of reproducing as the weakest. This was clearly not right.

So I tweaked the code so that the fitter strings had a higher chance of reproducing than the less fit. This required me to put the fitness test at the beginning of each iteration rather than the end. I had to refactor the code a little bit to make sure I didn’t repeat computations. Now I was drawing pairs of strings from the original “basket” and randomly crossing them over. And putting them through the fitness test. And so forth.

I’m extremely happy with the results of the algorithm. I’ve got just the kind of output that I had expected. More importantly, I was extremely happy with the process of coding the whole thing in. I did the entire coding in R, which is what I use for my data analysis (data size meant I didn’t need anything quicker).

The more interesting part is that this only solved a very small part of the problem I’m trying to solve for my client. Tomorrow I’m back to solving a different part of the problem. Genetic algorithms have served their purpose. Back when I started this assignment I had no clue I would be using genetic algorithms. In fact, I had no clue what techniques I might use.

Which is why I get annoyed when people ask me what kind of techniques I use in my problem solving. Given the kind of problems I take on, most will involve a large variety of math, CS and statistics techniques, each of which will only play a small role in the entire solution. This is also the reason I get annoyed when people put methods they are going to use to solve the problem on their pitch-decks. To me, that gives an impression that they are solving a toy version of the problem and not the real problem – or that the consultants are grossly oversimplifying the problem to be solved.

PS: Much as some people might describe it that way, I wouldn’t describe Genetic Algorithms as “machine learning”. I think there’s way too much intervention on the part of the programmer for it to be described thus.

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