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Ant Colony Optimization

Shortest path find by an ant colony

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Ant colony optimization (ACO) is a population-based meta-heuristic that can be used to find approximate solutions to difficult optimization problems.

In ACO, a set of software agents called artificial ants search for good solutions to a given optimization problem. To apply ACO, the optimization problem is transformed into the problem of finding the best path on a weighted graph. The artificial ants (hereafter ants) incrementally build solutions by moving on the graph. The solution construction process is stochastic and is biased by a pheromone model, that is, a set of parameters associated with graph components (either nodes or edges) whose values are modified at runtime by the ants.

The easiest way to understand how ant colony optimization works is by means of an example. We consider its application to the traveling salesman problem (TSP). In the TSP a set of locations (cities) and the distances between them are given. The problem consists of finding a closed tour of minimal length that visits each city once and only once.

To apply ACO to the TSP, we consider the graph defined by associating the set of cities with the set of vertices of the graph. This graph is called construction graph. Since in the TSP it is possible to move from any given city to any other city, the construction graph is fully connected and the number of vertices is equal to the number of cities. We set the lengths of the edges between the vertices to be proportional to the distances between the cities represented by these vertices and we associate pheromone values and heuristic values with the edges of the graph. Pheromone values are modified at runtime and represent the cumulated experience of the ant colony, while heuristic values are problem dependent values that, in the case of the TSP, are set to be the inverse of the lengths of the edges.

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