Overall Objectives
Research Program
Application Domains
Highlights of the Year
New Results
Bilateral Contracts and Grants with Industry
Partnerships and Cooperations
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Section: Research Program

Setting novel standards in scientific experimentation and benchmarking

Numerical experimentation is needed as a complement to theory to test novel ideas, hypotheses, the stability of an algorithm, and/or to obtain quantitative estimates. Optimally, theory and experimentation go hand in hand, jointly guiding the understanding of the mechanisms underlying optimization algorithms. Though performing numerical experimentation on optimization algorithms is crucial and a common task, it is non-trivial and easy to fall in (common) pitfalls as stated by J. N. Hooker in his seminal paper [22].

In the RandOpt team we aim at raising the standards for both scientific experimentation and benchmarking.

On the experimentation aspect, we are convinced that there is common ground over how scientific experimentation should be done across many (sub-)domains of optimization, in particular with respect to the visualization of results, testing extreme scenarios (parameter settings, initial conditions, etc.), how to conduct understandable and small experiments, how to account for invariance properties, performing scaling up experiments and so forth. We therefore want to formalize and generalize these ideas in order to make them known to the entire optimization community with the final aim that they become standards for experimental research.

Extensive numerical benchmarking, on the other hand, is a compulsory task for evaluating and comparing the performance of algorithms. It puts algorithms to a standardized test and allows to make recommendations which algorithms should be used preferably in practice. To ease this part of optimization research, we have been developing the Comparing Continuous Optimizers platform (COCO) since 2007 (see also the software section below) which allows to automatize the tedious task of benchmarking. It is a game changer in the sense that the freed time can now be spent on the scientific part of algorithm design (instead of implementing the experiments, visualization, statistical tests, etc.) and it opened novel perspectives in algorithm testing. COCO implements a thorough, well-documented methodology that is based on the above mentioned general principles for scientific experimentation.

Also due to the freely available data from 200+ algorithms benchmarked with the platform, COCO became a quasi-standard for single-objective, noiseless optimization benchmarking. It is therefore natural to extend the reach of COCO towards other subdomains (particularly constrained optimization, many-objective optimization) which can benefit greatly from an automated benchmarking methodology and standardized tests without (much) effort. This entails particularly the design of novel test suites and rethinking the methodology for measuring performance and more generally evaluating the algorithms. Particularly challenging is the design of scalable non-trivial testbeds for constrained optimization where one can still control where the solutions lies. Other optimization problem types, we are targeting are expensive problems (and the Bayesian optimization community in particular, see our AESOP project), optimization problems in machine learning (for example parameter tuning in reinforcement learning), and the collection of real-world problems from industry.

Another aspect of our future research on benchmarking is to investigate the large amounts of benchmarking data, we collected with COCO during the years. Extracting information about the influence of algorithms on the best performing portfolio, clustering algorithms of similar performance, or the automated detection of anomalies in terms of good/bad behavior of algorithms on a subset of the functions or dimensions are some of the ideas here.

Last, we want to expand the focus of COCO from automatized (large) benchmarking experiments towards everyday experimentation, for example by allowing the user to visually investigate algorithm internals on the fly or by simplifying the set up of algorithm parameter influence studies.