Objective Functions

An objective function formalizes an optimization problem for which a (somehow) optimal solution is to be found, for example using Optimizers. Given an input point within its admissible search space, an objective function returns a (possibly noisy) objective value and, optionally, its derivative. The input is typically a vector of real numbers, but the interface allows for more general cases as well. For single objective optimization the return value is a real number and the goal is to minimize it. For multi-objective optimization, the output is a vector holding the objective function value for each of the multiple goals.

Besides returning a corresponding value for a search point, objective functions in Shark also manage their own search space. In detail, they provide a method indicating if a given point is feasible, and possibly also a method which can provide the feasible point closest to an infeasible one.

The base class ‘AbstractObjectiveFunction <SearchPointType, ResultT>’

Template arguments and public types

The base class AbstractObjectiveFunction has two template arguments. The first is the SarchPointType, which defines the admissible type of inputs. ResultT defines the return type of the objective function, which for single-objective functions is double, and RealVector for multi-objective functions. Thus, a typical single objective function has as type signature AbstractObjectiveFunction< RealVector, double > and a multi objective function AbstractObjectiveFunction< RealVector, RealVector >. The following two typedefs are used throughout hark to make the distinction clear:

Typedef Description
SingleObjectiveFunction SearchPointType is RealVector, ResultType is double
MultiObjectiveFunction SearchPointType is RealVector, ResultType is RealVector

Based on the search space type, the following types are inferred and made public as typedefs:

Types Description
SearchPointType Type of an input point
FirstOrderDerivative Type of the derivative with respect to the point
SecondOrderDerivative Type of the object storing the first and second order derivative


Objective functions have a set of flags which indicate their capabilities and constraints. Accessor functions ease querying these flags:

Flag, accessor function If set to true …
HAS_VALUE, hasValue The objective function can calculate its own function value. Since this attribute is common to most objective functions, this flag is set by default. See comment below.
HAS_FIRST_DERIVATIVE, hasFirstDerivative The first derivative can be computed.
HAS_SECOND_DERIVATIVE, hasSecondDerivative The second derivative can be computed.
IS_CONSTRAINED_FEATURE, isConstrained The input space is constrained, and the function must offer a method isFeasible for checking whether a point is feasible.
HAS_CONSTRAINT_HANDLER, hasConstraintHandler Indicates that the constraints are governed by a handler.
CAN_PROPOSE_STARTING_POINT, canProposeStartingPoint The objective function can propose a feasible starting point from which the optimizer can start the optimization.
CAN_PROVIDE_CLOSEST_FEASIBLE, canProvideClosestFeasible A constrained function can provide a function closestFeasible which returns the closest feasible point given an infeasible one.
IS_THREAD_SAFE, isThreadSafe This flag indicates that eval and evalDerivative can be called in parallel by the optimizer for different points.
IS_NOISY, isNoisy This flag indicates that the function is noisy and several calls to eval or evalDerivative will lead to different results

The flag HAS_VALUE might seem strange at first. However, there exist scenarios where we want to implement the gradient of an objective function without a corresponding function itself. For some optimizers, the gradient information is enough to find a better point. If the flag is not set, calling eval is not allowed, and other functions return meaningless values like qnan. The flag HAS_CONSTRAINT_HANDLER indicates that constraints are represented by a secondary object. This object can be quried and might offer more spcial information about the constraints. for example it might indicate that it reprsents box constraints - in this case the exact shape of the box can be queried and an algorithm might choose a specific strategy based on this information.


Using an objective function is easy, as can be seen in the following short list of functions:

Method Description
init() Needs to be called before using it with an optimizer. This sets internal variables, e.g. the evaluation counter to 0. For Benchmark function it picks for example a random rotation or translation.
getConstraintHandler() Returns the constraint handler of the function, if it has one.
announceConstraintHandler(ConstraintHandler*) Protected function which is called from a derived class to indicate the presence of the handler. Sets up all flags of the objective function automatically.
bool isFeasible(SearchPointType) Returns true if a search point is feasible
closestFeasible(SearchPointType&) Selects the feasible point closest to an infeasible one
SearchPointType proposeStartingPoint() Returns an initial (possibly random) guess for a solution.
ResultType eval(SearchPointType) Evaluates the function on a given point
ResultType operator()(SearchPointType) Convenience operator calling eval
ResultType evalDerivative(SearchPointType, FirstOrderDerivative) Evaluates the function as well as the first derivative
ResultType evalDerivative(SearchPointType, SecondOrderDerivative) Evaluates the function as well as the first and second derivative

The function init allows objective functions to have random components in their setup. For example, certain benchmark functions can feature random rotation matrices or optimal points. It is also useful because it allows for easy, centralized configuration and allows the objective function to update its internal data structures before optimization. This function needs to be called before calling any init function of the optimizer.

If the search space is a vector space, additional functions are added which return or set the dimensionality of the objective function:

Method Description
std::size_t numberOfVariables() Returns the required dimensionality of the input point
bool hasScalableDimensionality() Returns true when the input space of the function can be scaled. This is useful for Benchmarking
setNumberOfVariables( std::size_t ) Sets the dimensionality of the input points if the function is scaleable.

MultiObjectiveFunctions offer the same mechanism for the number of objectives

Method Description
std::size_t numberOfObjectivees() Returns the dimensionality of a result vector
bool hasScalableObjectives() Returns true if the number of objectives can be changed, for example for Benchmarking.
setNumberOfVariables( std::size_t ) Sets the number of objectives if it is scalable.

Besides this, objective functions also have a name which can be used for automatic generation of output messages and store the number of times eval was called. The last feature is needed when benchmarking optimizers:

Method Description
std::string name() Returns the name of the function.
std::size_t evaluationCounter() Returns the number of function evaluations since the last call to init.

In summary, an objective functions has a very simple life cycle. First, it is created and configured. After that, init is called. Then the function can be evaluated using the different forms of eval or evalDerivative.

List of Objective functions

There are various single- and multi-objective benchmark functions implemented in Shark, which can be found in shark/ObjectiveFunctions/Benchmarks.

Furthermore, Shark offers a variety of single-objective functions:

Model Description
CombinedObjectiveFunction Weighted sum of several other objective functions.
ErrorFunction Uses a Model, some data and one of the Loss and Cost Functions to define a supervised problem. The class also allows for minibatch training
CrossValidationError k-fold cross validation. The mean error over all k validation sets is returned. Training time is proportional to the number of partitions.
LooError Leave-one-out error, the most extreme form of cross validation in which all but one point are part of the training sets.
LooErrorCSvm Special case of the LooError for SVMs using the structure of the SVM solution to speed-up evaluation.
SvmLogisticInterpretation Model selection for SVMs using a maximum-likelihood criterion
RadiusMarginQuotient Model selection for SVMs by optimizing the radius-margin quotient.
NegativeGaussianProcessEvidence Model selection for a regularization network/Gaussian process.
KernelTargetAlignment Model selection algorithm which measures for a given kernel, how similar points of the same class are and how dissimilar points of different classes.
NegativeLogLikelihood Measures how probable a dataset is under a given model parameterized by the vector of parameters given in the function argument.