In mathematics, computer science and operations research, mathematical optimization or mathematical programming, alternatively spelled optimisation, is the selection of a best element (with regard to some criterion) from some set of available alternatives.
In the simplest case, an optimization problem consists of maximizing or minimizing a real function by systematically choosing input values from within an allowed set and computing the value of the function. The generalization of optimization theory and techniques to other formulations constitutes a large area of applied mathematics. More generally, optimization includes finding "best available" values of some objective function given a defined domain (or input), including a variety of different types of objective functions and different types of domains.
An optimization problem can be represented in the following way:
Such a formulation is called an optimization problem or a mathematical programming problem (a term not directly related to computer programming, but still in use for example in linear programming – see History below). Many real-world and theoretical problems may be modeled in this general framework. Problems formulated using this technique in the fields of physics and computer vision may refer to the technique as energy minimization, speaking of the value of the function f as representing the energy of the system being modeled.
Typically, A is some subset of the Euclidean space Rn, often specified by a set of constraints, equalities or inequalities that the members of A have to satisfy. The domain A of f is called the search space or the choice set, while the elements of A are called candidate solutions or feasible solutions.
The function f is called, variously, an objective function, a loss function or cost function (minimization), a utility function or fitness function (maximization), or, in certain fields, an energy function or energy functional. A feasible solution that minimizes (or maximizes, if that is the goal) the objective function is called an optimal solution.
In mathematics, conventional optimization problems are usually stated in terms of minimization. Generally, unless both the objective function and the feasible region are convex in a minimization problem, there may be several local minima. A local minimum x* is defined as a point for which there exists some δ > 0 such that for all x where
holds; that is to say, on some region around x* all of the function values are greater than or equal to the value at that point. Local maxima are defined similarly.
While a local minimum is at least as good as any nearby points, a global minimum is at least as good as every feasible point. In a convex problem, if there is a local minimum that is interior (not on the edge of the set of feasible points), it is also the global minimum, but a nonconvex problem may have more than one local minimum not all of which need be global minima.
A large number of algorithms proposed for solving nonconvex problems—including the majority of commercially available solvers—are not capable of making a distinction between locally optimal solutions and globally optimal solutions, and will treat the former as actual solutions to the original problem. Global optimization is the branch of applied mathematics and numerical analysis that is concerned with the development of deterministic algorithms that are capable of guaranteeing convergence in finite time to the actual optimal solution of a nonconvex problem.
Optimization problems are often expressed with special notation. Here are some examples:
Consider the following notation:
Similarly, the notation
asks for the maximum value of the objective function 2x, where x may be any real number. In this case, there is no such maximum as the objective function is unbounded, so the answer is "infinity" or "undefined".
Consider the following notation:
This represents the value (or values) of the argument x in the interval that minimizes (or minimize) the objective function x2 + 1 (the actual minimum value of that function is not what the problem asks for). In this case, the answer is x = –1, since x = 0 is infeasible, i.e. does not belong to the feasible set.
represents the pair (or pairs) that maximizes (or maximize) the value of the objective function , with the added constraint that x lie in the interval (again, the actual maximum value of the expression does not matter). In this case, the solutions are the pairs of the form (5, 2kπ) and (−5,(2k+1)π), where k ranges over all integers.
arg min and arg max are sometimes also written argmin and argmax, and stand for argument of the minimum and argument of the maximum.
The term "linear programming" for certain optimization cases was due to George B. Dantzig, although much of the theory had been introduced by Leonid Kantorovich in 1939. (Programming in this context does not refer to computer programming, but from the use of program by the United States military to refer to proposed training and logistics schedules, which were the problems Dantzig studied at that time.) Dantzig published the Simplex algorithm in 1947, and John von Neumann developed the theory of duality in the same year.
Other major researchers in mathematical optimization include the following:
In a number of subfields, the techniques are designed primarily for optimization in dynamic contexts (that is, decision making over time):
Adding more than one objective to an optimization problem adds complexity. For example, to optimize a structural design, one would desire a design that is both light and rigid. When two objectives conflict, a trade-off must be created. There may be one lightest design, one stiffest design, and an infinite number of designs that are some compromise of weight and rigidity. The set of trade-off designs that cannot be improved upon according to one criterion without hurting another criterion is known as the Pareto set. The curve created plotting weight against stiffness of the best designs is known as the Pareto frontier.
A design is judged to be "Pareto optimal" (equivalently, "Pareto efficient" or in the Pareto set) if it is not dominated by any other design: If it is worse than another design in some respects and no better in any respect, then it is dominated and is not Pareto optimal.
The choice among "Pareto optimal" solutions to determine the "favorite solution" is delegated to the decision maker. In other words, defining the problem as multi-objective optimization signals that some information is missing: desirable objectives are given but combinations of them are not rated relative to each other. In some cases, the missing information can be derived by interactive sessions with the decision maker.
Multi-objective optimization problems have been generalized further into vector optimization problems where the (partial) ordering is no longer given by the Pareto ordering.
Optimization problems are often multi-modal; that is, they possess multiple good solutions. They could all be globally good (same cost function value) or there could be a mix of globally good and locally good solutions. Obtaining all (or at least some of) the multiple solutions is the goal of a multi-modal optimizer.
Classical optimization techniques due to their iterative approach do not perform satisfactorily when they are used to obtain multiple solutions, since it is not guaranteed that different solutions will be obtained even with different starting points in multiple runs of the algorithm. Evolutionary algorithms, however, are a very popular approach to obtain multiple solutions in a multi-modal optimization task.
The satisfiability problem, also called the feasibility problem, is just the problem of finding any feasible solution at all without regard to objective value. This can be regarded as the special case of mathematical optimization where the objective value is the same for every solution, and thus any solution is optimal.
Many optimization algorithms need to start from a feasible point. One way to obtain such a point is to relax the feasibility conditions using a slack variable; with enough slack, any starting point is feasible. Then, minimize that slack variable until slack is null or negative.
The extreme value theorem of Karl Weierstrass states that a continuous real-valued function on a compact set attains its maximum and minimum value. More generally, a lower semi-continuous function on a compact set attains its minimum; an upper semi-continuous function on a compact set attains its maximum.
One of Fermat's theorems states that optima of unconstrained problems are found at stationary points, where the first derivative or the gradient of the objective function is zero (see first derivative test). More generally, they may be found at critical points, where the first derivative or gradient of the objective function is zero or is undefined, or on the boundary of the choice set. An equation (or set of equations) stating that the first derivative(s) equal(s) zero at an interior optimum is called a 'first-order condition' or a set of first-order conditions.
Optima of equality-constrained problems can be found by the Lagrange multiplier method. The optima of problems with equality and/or inequality constraints can be found using the 'Karush–Kuhn–Tucker conditions'.
While the first derivative test identifies points that might be extrema, this test does not distinguish a point that is a minimum from one that is a maximum or one that is neither. When the objective function is twice differentiable, these cases can be distinguished by checking the second derivative or the matrix of second derivatives (called the Hessian matrix) in unconstrained problems, or the matrix of second derivatives of the objective function and the constraints called the bordered Hessian in constrained problems. The conditions that distinguish maxima, or minima, from other stationary points are called 'second-order conditions' (see 'Second derivative test'). If a candidate solution satisfies the first-order conditions, then satisfaction of the second-order conditions as well is sufficient to establish at least local optimality.
For unconstrained problems with twice-differentiable functions, some critical points can be found by finding the points where the gradient of the objective function is zero (that is, the stationary points). More generally, a zero subgradient certifies that a local minimum has been found for minimization problems with convex functions and other locally Lipschitz functions.
Further, critical points can be classified using the definiteness of the Hessian matrix: If the Hessian is positive definite at a critical point, then the point is a local minimum; if the Hessian matrix is negative definite, then the point is a local maximum; finally, if indefinite, then the point is some kind of saddle point.
Constrained problems can often be transformed into unconstrained problems with the help of Lagrange multipliers. Lagrangian relaxation can also provide approximate solutions to difficult constrained problems.
When the objective function is convex, then any local minimum will also be a global minimum. There exist efficient numerical techniques for minimizing convex functions, such as interior-point methods.
To solve problems, researchers may use algorithms that terminate in a finite number of steps, or iterative methods that converge to a solution (on some specified class of problems), or heuristics that may provide approximate solutions to some problems (although their iterates need not converge).
The iterative methods used to solve problems of nonlinear programming differ according to whether they evaluate Hessians, gradients, or only function values. While evaluating Hessians (H) and gradients (G) improves the rate of convergence, for functions for which these quantities exist and vary sufficiently smoothly, such evaluations increase the computational complexity (or computational cost) of each iteration. In some cases, the computational complexity may be excessively high.
One major criterion for optimizers is just the number of required function evaluations as this often is already a large computational effort, usually much more effort than within the optimizer itself, which mainly has to operate over the N variables. The derivatives provide detailed information for such optimizers, but are even harder to calculate, e.g. approximating the gradient takes at least N+1 function evaluations. For approximations of the 2nd derivatives (collected in the Hessian matrix) the number of function evaluations is in the order of N². Newton's method requires the 2nd order derivates, so for each iteration the number of function calls is in the order of N², but for a simpler pure gradient optimizer it is only N. However, gradient optimizers need usually more iterations than Newton's algorithm. Which one is best with respect to the number of function calls depends on the problem itself.
More generally, if the objective function is not a quadratic function, then many optimization methods use other methods to ensure that some subsequence of iterations converges to an optimal solution. The first and still popular method for ensuring convergence relies on line searches, which optimize a function along one dimension. A second and increasingly popular method for ensuring convergence uses trust regions. Both line searches and trust regions are used in modern methods of non-differentiable optimization. Usually a global optimizer is much slower than advanced local optimizers (such as BFGS), so often an efficient global optimizer can be constructed by starting the local optimizer from different starting points.
Besides (finitely terminating) algorithms and (convergent) iterative methods, there are heuristics. A heuristic is any algorithm which is not guaranteed (mathematically) to find the solution, but which is nevertheless useful in certain practical situations. List of some well-known heuristics:
Problems in rigid body dynamics (in particular articulated rigid body dynamics) often require mathematical programming techniques, since you can view rigid body dynamics as attempting to solve an ordinary differential equation on a constraint manifold; the constraints are various nonlinear geometric constraints such as "these two points must always coincide", "this surface must not penetrate any other", or "this point must always lie somewhere on this curve". Also, the problem of computing contact forces can be done by solving a linear complementarity problem, which can also be viewed as a QP (quadratic programming) problem.
Many design problems can also be expressed as optimization programs. This application is called design optimization. One subset is the engineering optimization, and another recent and growing subset of this field is multidisciplinary design optimization, which, while useful in many problems, has in particular been applied to aerospace engineering problems.
This approach may be applied in cosmology and astrophysics,.
Economics is closely enough linked to optimization of agents that an influential definition relatedly describes economics qua science as the "study of human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means" with alternative uses. Modern optimization theory includes traditional optimization theory but also overlaps with game theory and the study of economic equilibria. The Journal of Economic Literature codes classify mathematical programming, optimization techniques, and related topics under JEL:C61-C63.
In microeconomics, the utility maximization problem and its dual problem, the expenditure minimization problem, are economic optimization problems. Insofar as they behave consistently, consumers are assumed to maximize their utility, while firms are usually assumed to maximize their profit. Also, agents are often modeled as being risk-averse, thereby preferring to avoid risk. Asset prices are also modeled using optimization theory, though the underlying mathematics relies on optimizing stochastic processes rather than on static optimization. International trade theory also uses optimization to explain trade patterns between nations. The optimization of portfolios is an example of multi-objective optimization in economics.
Since the 1970s, economists have modeled dynamic decisions over time using control theory. For example, microeconomists use dynamic search models to study labor-market behavior. A crucial distinction is between deterministic and stochastic models. Macroeconomists build dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models that describe the dynamics of the whole economy as the result of the interdependent optimizing decisions of workers, consumers, investors, and governments.
Some common applications of optimization techniques in electrical engineering include active filter design, stray field reduction in superconducting magnetic energy storage systems, space mapping design of microwave structures, handset antennas, electromagnetics-based design. Electromagnetically validated design optimization of microwave components and antennas has made extensive use of an appropriate physics-based or empirical surrogate model and space mapping methodologies since the discovery of space mapping in 1993 
Optimization has been widely used in civil engineering. The most common civil engineering problems that are solved by optimization are cut and fill of roads, life-cycle analysis of structures and infrastructures, resource leveling and schedule optimization.
Another field that uses optimization techniques extensively is operations research. Operations research also uses stochastic modeling and simulation to support improved decision-making. Increasingly, operations research uses stochastic programming to model dynamic decisions that adapt to events; such problems can be solved with large-scale optimization and stochastic optimization methods.
Mathematical optimization is used in much modern controller design. High-level controllers such as model predictive control (MPC) or real-time optimization (RTO) employ mathematical optimization. These algorithms run online and repeatedly determine values for decision variables, such as choke openings in a process plant, by iteratively solving a mathematical optimization problem including constraints and a model of the system to be controlled.
Optimization techniques are regularly used in geophysical parameter estimation problems. Given a set of geophysical measurements, e.g. seismic recordings, it is common to solve for the physical properties and geometrical shapes of the underlying rocks and fluids.
Nonlinear optimization methods are widely used in conformational analysis.
Methods to obtain suitable (in some sense) natural extensions of optimization problems that otherwise lack of existence or stability of solutions to obtain problems with guaranteed existence of solutions and their stability in some sense (typically under various perturbation of data) are in general called relaxation. Solutions of such extended (=relaxed) problems in some sense characterizes (at least certain features) of the original problems, e.g. as far as their optimizing sequences concerns. Relaxed problems may also possesses their own natural linear structure that may yield specific optimality conditions different from optimality conditions for the original problems.