Organisations are increasingly able to capture an up-to-date picture of their global resources, and they are seeking to optimise their use of these resources. However for large organisations this optimisation problem is unmanageable: no algorithm could ever find the guaranteed best solution for the whole organisation.

Stochastic techniques are a way of exploring very large solution spaces and finding good solutions even when it is only possible to visit a (vanishingly!) small proportion of the solutions. Well-known techniques include simulated annealing, genetic algorithms and tabu search. A drawback is that for structured problems, where constraints impose complex dependencies between different parts of the solution, stochastic techniques are not able to enforce these constraints.

Recently researchers have begun to explore ways of embedding constraint propagation in stochastic algorithms, thus ensuring that the solutions visited by the algorithm satisfy the problem constraints. To date such hybrid algorithms have been rather loosely coupled. For example the stochastic technique only works on a small subset of the problem variables, producing skeleton solutions. These are then fleshed out using constraint handling techniques, and the cost of the resulting full solution is calculated, and fed back to the stochastic algorithm which generates another skeleton solution.

Tightly integrated algorithms combining techniques from mathematical programming, constraint programming and stochastic algorithms are now the vision of a growing research community. These algorithms may still not be the ``golden bullet'' that cuts through all forms of complexity, but they would certainly represent an important step in the right direction!

Wed Sep 3 18:36:40 BST 1997