Heuristic Search

Heuristic search is the study of computer algorithms designed for PROBLEM SOLVING, based on trial-and-error exploration of possible solutions. Problem solving tasks include "pathfinding problems," game playing, and CONSTRAINT SATISFACTION.

The task of navigating in a network of roads from an initial location to a desired goal location, with the aid of a roadmap, is an example of a pathfinding problem. The "states" of the problem are decision points, or intersections of two or more roads. The "operators" are segments of road between two adjacent intersections. The navigation problem can be viewed as finding a sequence of operators (road segments) that go from the initial state (location) to the goal state (location). In a game such as CHESS, the states are the legal board configurations, and the operators are the legal moves.

A search algorithm may be systematic or nonsystematic. A systematic algorithm is guaranteed to find a solution if one exists, and may in fact guarantee a lowest-cost solution. Nonsystematic algorithms, such as GREEDY LOCAL SEARCH, EVOLUTIONARY COMPUTATION, and other stochastic approaches, are not guaranteed to find a solution. We focus on systematic algorithms here.

The simplest systematic algorithms, called "brute-force search" algorithms, do not use any knowledge about the problem other than the states, operators, and initial and goal states. For example, "breadth-first search" starts with the initial state, then considers all states one operator away from the initial state, then all states two operators away, and so on until the goal is reached. Uniform-cost search, or Dijkstra's algorithm (Dijkstra 1959), considers the different costs of operators, or lengths of road segments in our example, and visits the states in increasing order of their distance from the start. A drawback of both these algorithms is that they require enough memory to hold all the states considered so far, which is prohibitive in very large problems (see the following).

"Depth-first search" more closely approximates how one would search if actually driving in the road network, rather than planning with a map. From the current location, depth-first search extends the current path by following one of the roads until a dead end is reached. It then backtracks to the last decision point that has not been completely explored, and chooses a new path from there. The advantage of depth-first search is that it only requires enough memory to hold the current path from the initial state.

"Bi-directional search" (Pohl 1971) searches forward from the initial state and backward from the goal state simultaneously, until the two searches meet. At that point, a complete path from the initial state to the goal state has been found.

A drawback of all brute-force searches is the amount of time they take to execute. For example, a breadth-first search of a road network will explore a roughly circular region whose center is the initial location, and whose radius is the distance to the goal. It has no sense of where the goal is until it stumbles upon it.

Heuristic search, however, is directed toward the goal. A heuristic search, such as the "A* algorithm" (Hart, Nilsson, and Raphael 1968), makes use of a "heuristic evaluation function," which estimates the distance from any location to the goal. For example, the straight-line distance from a given location to the goal is often a good estimate of the actual road distance. For every location visited by A*, it estimates the total distance of a path to the goal that passes through that location. This is the sum of the distance from the start to the location, plus the straight-line distance from the location to the goal. A* starts with the initial location, and generates all the locations immediately adjacent to it. It then evaluates these locations in the above way. At each step, it generates and evaluates the neighbors of the unexplored location with the lowest total estimate. It stops when it chooses a goal location.

A* is guaranteed to find a solution if one exists. Furthermore, if the heuristic function never overestimates actual cost, A* is guaranteed to find a shortest solution. For example, because the shortest path between two points is a straight line, A* using the straight-line distance heuristic function is guaranteed to find a shortest solution to the road navigation problem.

The bane of all search algorithms is called "combinatorial explosion." In road navigation, the total number of intersections is quite manageable for a computer. Consider, however, the traveling salesman problem (TSP). Given a set of N cities, the TSP is to find a shortest tour that visits all the cities and returns to the starting city. Given N cities, there are (N - 1)! different orders in which the cities could be visited. Clever algorithms can reduce the number of possibilities to 2N, but even if N is as small as 50, 2N is approximately 1015. Even if a computer could examine a million possibilities per second, examining 1015 possibilities would take 31.7 years.

An algorithm that is well suited to problems such as the TSP is called depth-first branch-and-bound. A TSP solution is a sequence of cities. Depth-first branch-and-bound systematically searches the possible tours depth-first, adding one city at a time to a partial tour, and backtracks when a tour is completed. In addition, it keeps track of the length of the shortest complete tour found so far, in a variable . Whenever a partial tour is found in which the sum of the trip segments already included exceeds , we need not consider any extensions of that partial tour, inasmuch as the total cost can only be greater. In addition, a heuristic evaluation function can be used to estimate the cost of completing a partial tour. If the heuristic function never overestimates the lowest completion cost, whenever the cost of the segments so far, plus the heuristic estimate of the completion cost, exceeds , we can backtrack. All known algorithms that are guaranteed to find an optimal solution to such "combinatorial problems" are variants of branch-and-bound.

See also

Additional links

-- Richard Korf


Dijkstra, E. W. (1959). A note on two problems in connexion with graphs. Numerische Mathematik 1:269-271.

Hart, P. E., N. J. Nilsson, and B. Raphael. (1968). A formal basis for the heuristic determination of minimum cost paths. IEEE Transactions on Systems Science and Cybernetics 4(2):100-107.

Pohl, I. (1971). Bi-directional search. In B. Meltzer and D. Michie, Eds., Machine Intelligence 6. New York: American Elsevier, pp. 127-140.

Further Readings

Bolc, L., and J. Cytowski. (1992). Search Methods for Artificial Intelligence. London: Academic Press.

Kanal, L., and V. Kumar, Eds. (1988). Search in Artificial Intelligence. New York: Springer.

Korf, R. E. (1985). Depth-first iterative-deepening: an optimal admissible tree search. Artificial Intelligence 27(1):97-109.

Korf, R. E. (1998). Artificial intelligence search algorithms. To appear in M. J. Atallah, Ed., CRC Handbook of Algorithms and Theory of Computation. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Newell, A., and H. A. Simon. (1972). Human Problem Solving. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Pearl, J. (1984). Heuristics. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.