September 2013


The mother example of optimization is to solve problems

\displaystyle  \min_{x\in C} f(x)

for functions {f:{\mathbb R}^n\rightarrow{\mathbb R}} and sets {C\in{\mathbb R}^n}. One further classifies problems according to additional properties of {f} and {C}: If {C={\mathbb R}^n} one speaks of unconstrained optimization, if {f} is smooth one speaks of smooth optimization, if {f} and {C} are convex one speaks of convex optimization and so on.

1. Classification, goals and accuracy

Usually, optimization problems do not have a closed form solution. Consequently, optimization is not primarily concerned with calculating solutions to optimization problems, but with algorithms to solve them. However, having a convergent or terminating algorithm is not fully satisfactory without knowing an upper bound on the runtime. There are several concepts one can work with in this respect and one is the iteration complexity. Here, one gives an upper bound on the number of iterations (which are only allowed to use certain operations such as evaluations of the function {f}, its gradient {\nabla f}, its Hessian, solving linear systems of dimension {n}, projecting onto {C}, calculating halfspaces which contain {C}, or others) to reach a certain accuracy. But also for the notion of accuracy there are several definitions:

  • For general problems one can of course desire to be within a certain distance to the optimal point {x^*}, i.e. {\|x-x^*\|\leq \epsilon} for the solution {x^*} and a given point {x}.
  • One could also demand that one wants to be at a point which has a function value close to the optimal one {f^*}, i.e, {f(x) - f^*\leq \epsilon}. Note that for this and for the first point one could also desire relative accuracy.
  • For convex and unconstrained problems, one knowns that the inclusion {0\in\partial f(x^*)} (with the subgradient {\partial f(x)}) characterizes the minimizers and hence, accuracy can be defined by desiring that {\min\{\|\xi\|\ :\ \xi\in\partial f(x)\}\leq \epsilon}.

It turns out that the first two definitions of accuracy are much to hard to obtain for general problems and even for smooth and unconstrained problems. The main issue is that for general functions one can not decide if a local minimizer is also a solution (i.e. a global minimizer) by only considering local quantities. Hence, one resorts to different notions of accuracy, e.g.

  • For a smooth, unconstrained problems aim at stationary points, i.e. find {x} such that {\|\nabla f(x)\|\leq \epsilon}.
  • For smoothly constrained smooth problems aim at “approximately KKT-points” i.e. a point that satisfies the Karush-Kuhn-Tucker conditions approximately.

(There are adaptions to the nonsmooth case that are in the same spirit.) Hence, it would be more honest not write {\min_x f(x)} in these cases since this is often not really the problem one is interested in. However, people write “solve {\min_x f(x)}” all the time even if they only want to find “approximately stationary points”.

2. The gradient method for smooth, unconstrainted optimization

Consider a smooth function {f:{\mathbb R}^n\rightarrow {\mathbb R}} (we’ll say more precisely how smooth in a minute). We make no assumption on convexity and hence, we are only interested in finding stationary points. From calculus in several dimensions it is known that {-\nabla f(x)} is a direction of descent from the point {x}, i.e. there is a value {h>0} such that {f(x - h\nabla f(x))< f(x)}. Hence, it seems like moving into the direction of the negative gradient is a good idea. We arrive at what is known as gradient method:

\displaystyle  x_{k+1} = x_k - h_k \nabla f(x_k).

Now let’s be more specific about the smoothness of {f}. Of course we need that {f} is differentiable and we also want the gradient to be continuous (to make the evaluation of {\nabla f} stable). It turns out that some more smoothness makes the gradient method more efficient, namely we require that the gradient of {f} is Lipschitz continuous with a known Lipschitz constant {L}. The Lipschitz constant can be used to produce efficient stepsizes {h_k}, namely, for {h_k = 1/L} one has the estimate

\displaystyle  f(x_k) - f(x_{k+1})\geq \frac{1}{2L}\|\nabla f(x_k)\|^2.

This inequality is really great because one can use telescoping to arrive at

\displaystyle  \frac{1}{2L}\sum_{k=0}^N \|\nabla f(x_k)\|^2 \leq f(x_0) - f(x_{N+1}) \leq f(x_0) - f^*

with the optimal value {f} (note that we do not need to know {f^*} for the following). We immediately arrive at

\displaystyle  \min_{0\leq k\leq N} \|\nabla f(x_k)\| \leq \frac{1}{\sqrt{N+1}}\sqrt{2L(f(x_0)-f^*))}.

That’s already a result on the iteration complexity! Among the first {N} iterates there is one which has a gradient norm of order {N^{-1/2}}.

However, from here on it’s getting complicated: We can not say anything about the function values {f(x_k)} and about convergence of the iterates {x_k}. And even for convex functions {f} (which allow for more estimates from above and below) one needs some more effort to prove convergence of the functional values to the global minimal one.

But how about convergence of the iterates for the gradient method if convexity is not given? It turns out that this is a hard problem. As illustration, consider the continuous case, i.e. a trajectory of the dynamical system

\displaystyle  \dot x = -\nabla f(x)

(which is a continuous limit of the gradient method as the stepsize goes to zero). A physical intuition about this dynamical system in {{\mathbb R}^2} is as follows: The function {f} describes a landscape and {x} are the coordinates of an object. Now, if the landscape is slippery the object slides down the landscape and if we omit friction and inertia, the object will always slide in the direction of the negative gradient. Consider now a favorable situation: {f} is smooth, bounded from below and the level sets {\{f\leq t\}} are compact. What can one say about the trajectories of the {\dot x = -\nabla f(x)}? Well, it seems clear that one will arrive at a local minimum after some time. But with a little imagination one can see that the trajectory of {x} does not even has to be of finite length! To see this consider a landscape {f} that is a kind of bowl-shaped valley with a path which goes down the hillside in a spiral way such that it winds around the minimum infinitely often. This situation seems somewhat pathological and one usually does not expect situation like this in practice. If you tried to prove convergence of the iterates of gradient or subgradient descent you may have noticed that one sometimes wonders why the proof turns out to be so complicated. The reason lies in the fact that such pathological functions are not excluded. But what functions should be excluded in order to avoid this pathological behavior without restricting to too simple functions?

3. The Kurdyka-Łojasiewicz inequality

Here comes the so-called Kurdyka-Łojasiewicz inequality into play. I do not know its history well, but if you want a pointer, you could start with the paper “On gradients of functions definable in o-minimal structures” by Kurdyka.

The inequality shall be a way to turn a complexity estimate for the gradient of a function into a complexity estimate for the function values. Hence, one would like to control the difference in functional value by the gradient. One way to do so is the following:

Definition 1 Let {f} be a real valued function and assume (without loss of generality) that {f} has a unique minimum at {0} and that {f(0)=0}. Then {f} satisfies a Kurdyka-Łojasiewicz inequality if there exists a differentiable function {\kappa:[0,r]\rightarrow {\mathbb R}} on some interval {[0,r]} with {\kappa'>0} and {\kappa(0)=0} such that

\displaystyle  \|\nabla(\kappa\circ f)(x)\|\geq 1

for all {x} such that {f(x)<r}.

Informally, this definition ensures that one can “reparameterize the range of the function such that the resulting function has a kink in the minimum and is steep around that minimum”. This definition is due to the above paper by Kurdyka from 1998. In fact it is a slight generalization of the Łowasiewicz inequality (which dates back to a note of Łojasiewicz from 1963) which states that there is some {C>0} and some exponent {\theta} such that in the above situation it holds that

\displaystyle  \|\nabla f(x)\|\geq C|f(x)|^\theta.

To see that, take {\kappa(s) = s^{1-\theta}} and evaluate the gradient to {\nabla(\kappa\circ f)(x) = (1-\theta)f(x)^{-\theta}\nabla f(x)} to obtain {1\leq (1-\theta)|f(x)|^{-\theta}\|\nabla f(x)\|}. This also makes clear that in the case the inequality is fulfilled, the gradient provides control over the function values.

The works of Łojasiewicz and Kurdyka show that a large class of functions {f} fulfill the respective inequalities, e.g. piecewise analytic function and even a larger class (termed o-minimal structures) which I haven’t fully understood yet. Since the Kurdyka-Łojasiewicz inequality allows to turn estimates from {\|\nabla f(x_k)\|} into estimates of {|f(x_k)|} it plays a key role in the analysis of descent methods. It somehow explains, that one really never sees pathological behavior such as infinite minimization paths in practice. Lately there have been several works on further generalization of the Kurdyka-Łojasiewicz inequality to the non-smooth case, see e.g. Characterizations of Lojasiewicz inequalities: subgradient flows, talweg, convexity by Bolte, Daniilidis, Ley and Mazet Convergence of non-smooth descent methods using the Kurdyka-Łojasiewicz inequality by Noll (however, I do not try to give an overview over the latest developments here). Especially, here at the French-German-Polish Conference on Optimization which takes place these days in Krakow, the Kurdyka-Łojasiewicz inequality has popped up several times.

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A quick post to keep track of several things:

This is the last post in a series of posts (which was not intended to be a series). The series started with this post in which I reported some experience with job interviews I had in spring last year, and continued with this post which told what happened afterwards. The story ended with the paragraph “Now the final steps will be: Preparation of the next list of wishes, negotiations to stay and finally, the most difficult part, forming a well-founded decision.” That was about eleven month ago and was not totally wrong. Here is what happened then:

1. The Bleibeverhandlung

The Bleibeverhandlung (the negotiations to stay) is in principle similar to the negotiations with other universities. But there are important differences: The first one is due to the fact that there has been no official committee of the department involved so far and hence, the department has to form an opinion on how much they want to keep you. As far as I know this usually happens in an informal way and can be very different in different places and also the dean (or, in my case, the “speaker of the department”) may handle this in its own way. Also, you will not be involved in this step in any way (I think). The amount of support you get is crucial for the next steps. The department has to report its opinion to the dean (who is basically in control of the money here) and the dean has to decide about a strategy how to keep you (if your support is strong enough). Again, this is very different in different cases. Also, I do not know too much about this process, but at least there will be some communication between the dean and the president (or their offices). But after this procedure, the next steps of negotiations are basically the same as before: First negotiations with the dean, then with the president. Again, the first negotiation is somehow more important as many things are handled by the dean. In my case there was the question on which kind of position the department could keep me and how it could be arranged to fill this position with me. I have been Juniorprofessor (basically equal to assistant professor) and according to German law, there is not way of promotion to the “next level”. The university had to find an “open position for a professor”. But there was such a position (which I knew before since I had a tenure track position). The next obstruction was that, again according to German law, there usually has to be an official public announcement if such a position is to be filled. Consequently, anyone who is qualified could apply and should have a positive probability to get the job. However, I learned that my state has the possibility to fill a position without public announcement and it was part of my offer that my university “offered to start the initiation of this procedure”. It is somehow difficult to translate but the university could not even offer to initiate this “filling without public announcement” because this is something on which several committees has to agree.

2. The decision

Well, I had the official offer of my university pretty quick after negotiations. Basically, it was on par with the other offers (slightly better in some respects, slightly worse in others – but clearly no clear winner). The only caveat was, that there was no guarantee that I could get a permanent position because this depended on the decision of more committees. However, I had a formal statement that the president and the dean would initiate and support the procedure. Moreover, colleagues told me that my university had done a great job in keeping its promises in similar respects.

So, the decision was not easy. However, I decided not to play “ping-pong” with the other universities (which could be possible – but I can not tell you how that works) and to decide on basis of the facts I had after one round of negotiations. It was a tough and close decision which I do not comment in more detail here. But I decided to stay at TU Braunschweig.

3. Another application

Correct: I had to write another application! Although the process to “fill the position without public announcement” was granted by all committees (which took quite some time), that still meant that there had to be a normal procedure for an appointment: A committee had to be formed which had to agree on criteria for the position and had to ask me to apply for the position. Then, I applied and I even were invited to give a talk, a test lecture and had a job interview (all at my own university). Usually, there also had to be external referee reports but somebody found that there was the possibility to have enough external committee members present at the presentation and the job interview who then have their opinion recorded. After that, the committee had to form a decision and a one person list which went the usual way through administration. Then I got the offer in the official way and was even asked for another negotiations. But since the university really had realized the whole procedure totally as promised, I did not see any reason to insist on further negotiations. They had done anything as we had agreed on, and so I just said, that I agree to take the position on the basis of the offer they had formulated. This went smoothly and I accepted (officially by mail). The next step was that I had to go to the Amtsarzt (translates to “public health officer”) who had to check if was healthy enough for a lifetime professorship. (I had been at the Amtsarzt before I started my Juniorprofessorship, but then he only checked if I was healthy enough for six years…). Also, this went smoothly and a few days ago there was my “appointment for life”. (Last remark: I wondered that I did not had to repeat the “official oath” (Amtseid) because I had done this when I started the Juniorprofessorship, and this remains a lifetime.)

End of the story – indeed a happy end for me. The procedure was quite slow – but as far as I’ve heard all the people who have been involved did their best to make the procedure as quick as possible and I am very thankful for the effort and support of many people. It is just an awfully complicated procedure to appoint a professor in Germany which consists of many steps and many people and committees are involved…