William Macready, David Wolpert

Paper #: 95-02-010

We show that all algorithms that search for an extremum of a cost function perform exactly the same, when averaged over all possible cost functions. In particular, if algorithm A outperforms algorithm B on some cost functions, then loosely speaking there must exist exactly as many other functions where B outperforms A. Starting from this we analyze a number of the other a priori characteristics of the search problem, like its geometry and its information-theoretic aspects. This analysis allows us to derive mathematical benchmarks for assessing a particular search algorithm's performance. We also investigate minimax aspects of the search problem, the validity of using characteristics of a partial search over a cost function to predict future behavior of the search algorithm on that cost function, and time-varying cost functions. We conclude with some discussion of the justifiablility of biologically inspired search methods.