Let’s Program A Swarm Intelligence 5: Defining The Swarm

A Closer Look At Particles


Up to this point I’ve been really vague about how the particle swarm itself actually works. How exactly do the particles search for new answers? How do they communicated with each other? How do we program a particle? Time to find out.


Let’s start by remembering back to the very first post of this Let’s Program. The one where I explained that a particle swarm optimizer is just a system for making a lot of random guesses and then adjusting those guesses.


This gives us a pretty good guess of what our particles need to look like. If every particle represents a random guess at the best possible solution to our problem then every particle needs some sort of data structure for keeping track of its current guess. And since we want to update those guesses as we go we are also going to need some sort of data structure for keeping track of the next guess we want to make. Finally, since we want to keep track of the guesses we made each particle should have some sort of record of past guesses.


To summarize, our particle needs three things:

  1. A guess at a best answer
  2. An idea of what it should guess next
  3. A history of all it’s guesses


For example, if we’re optimizing a two variable chemistry equation one of our particles might look like this:

  1. Current Guess: Set temperature to 400 Kelvin and Pressure to 2 atmospheres
  2. Next Guess: Decrease temperature by 20 Kelvin and increase pressure by 0.3 atmospheres
  3. History: 450 Kelivin and 1.8 atmospheres, 420 Kelvin and 1.9 atmospheres


But wait, there’s more! Back in the first post I also mentioned that the key to particle swarm optimization is to think of your random guesses like co-ordinates on a graph. So instead of thinking of your current guess as a temperature and a pressure think of it as an x-coordinate and a y-coordinate.


By the same logic you can think of the next-guess not as an adjustment, but as a velocity. Don’t say that you want to decrease the first variable’s value by 10 and increase the second variable’s value by 20. Instead say that the particle has an x velocity of -10 and a y velocity of 20.


With this perspective we can take the two variable chemistry equation example from above and turn it into a particle that looks like this:

  1. Position: x: 400, y: 2
  2. Velocity: x-velocity: -20, y-velocity: 0.3
  3. History: (440, 1.7), (420, 1.4)


Now just imagine another 99 particles with their own random positions and velocities and you’ve got a swarm!


The Logic Of The Swarm


You’ve just seen how a little mental juggling lets us turn a set of random guesses into a two dimensional particle zipping through a two dimensional world. Nifty, but why bother?


Well, in order for our swarm intelligence to actually act intelligently the particles need some way to adjust their search patterns based on the information they and their neighbors have found. They need some way to compromise between searching off in their own corner and helping the swarm examine known good answers. Giving them a velocity makes this easy.


The process works like this: Each particle regularly checks in with the swarm and asks for the co-ordinates of the best answer that any particle has found so far. The particle then compares its current velocity to the location of the best answer so far. If the particle is not already moving towards the best answer so far it adjusts its own velocity to a compromise between where it was already going and the direction it would need to go to reach the best answer.


For example, imagine a particle is currently at position (10, 10) with a velocity of (1, 1). The particle checks with the swarm and finds out that the best answer so far is at position (-5, -5). Since it turns out that the particle is moving in the exact opposite direction of the best answer so far it adjusts it’s velocity a little, probably to something like (.8, .8). Still the wrong direction, but slower. If no better answer than (-5,-5) is found the particle will keep adjusting its velocity little by little until it’s eventually moving directly towards (-5, -5).


We’ll cover the exact math behind moving particles and updating velocity in a few more posts. For now just make sure you’re comfortable with the idea.


Also, this isn’t the only particle swarm algorithm. Other more complicated algorithms exist. One popular approach* has each particle update it’s velocity by looking not only at the global best answer so far, but also the best answer it has personally found. This can help avoid the problem of particles being so obsessed with the global best answer that they skip over even better answers near their random starting location. We’re not going to be bothering with that right now though. Just thought you might like to know.


Object Orienting Your Lisp


With all that theory out of the way we can finally write some Lisp. Not a lot of Lisp just yet though. We’ll mostly just be writing a simple data structure to represent a particle.


Like we mentioned above every particle in our 2D swarm the following pieces of data: an x-position, a y-position, an x-speed, a y-speed and history. Creating a Lisp data structure to hold all that is as simple as using the defclass function. The first argument is the name of the class, the second argument is just a blank list (unless you’re using class inheritance, which we aren’t) and the final argument is a list of the data slots you want inside the class.


(defclass particle-2d ()



Now that we’ve defined a particle-2d class creating particles is as easy as a call to make-instance. Here I’ve nested it inside a defparameter in order to assign the new particle to a test variable I have unimaginatively called *test-particle*.


(defparameter *test-particle*
    (make-instance 'particle-2d))


Once you have an actual particle-2d you can access specific data slots using the slot-value function. The first argument is the class object you want to get data out of and the second argument is the name of the data-slot you’re interested in. Her I’ve nested the slot access inside of a setf in order to assign some actual data to the *test-particle* that I just created.


(setf (slot-value *test-particle* 'x-coord) 10)
(setf (slot-value *test-particle* 'y-coord) 5)
(setf (slot-value *test-particle* 'x-vel) 1)
(setf (slot-value *test-particle* 'y-vel) 2)
(setf (slot-value *test-particle* 'history) '(10 5))


We can also use slot-value to read data without setting it. For instance, here’s a convenient little function for printing out a particle in a human friendly format. This uses the powerful format function. If you ever find yourself needing to write a Lisp function that ties lots of data together into one big string you’ll definitely want to look up all the cool things you can do with format.


(defun print-particle-2d (particle)
    (format t "x:~a~%y:~a~%x-vel:~a~%y-vel:~a"
        (slot-value particle 'x-coord)
        (slot-value particle 'y-coord)
        (slot-value particle 'x-vel)
        (slot-value particle 'y-vel)))


Now let’s define the swarm. The swarm really has only two jobs: to keep track of the best answer so far and to provide a convenient link to all the particles.


(defclass swarm-2d ()


The Promise Of More Compact Code


The previous code was a little bulky. Do we really want to have to write five lines of setf and slot-value every time we need a new particle? Fortunately the answer is no. We can hide all that tedious work inside a nice, clean function. Even better, Lisp has some built in tricks that make creating and manipulating objects like our particle-2d much easier. So don’t worry, if our code really starts weighing us down with it’s bulk we have plenty of options for slimming it down.


Until then let’s just celebrate that we’ve got some great foundation code for our swarm. With our particle object and swarm object defined we’re all set to start building the code to generate an entire swarm filled with dozens of particles eager to rush out and solve our problems.


So be sure to tune in next time!



* At least I assume it’s popular since it’s the one that made it into the Wikipedia article on particle swarms