James Kotary, Ferdinando Fioretto, Pascal Van Hentenryck
Optimization problems are ubiquitous in our societies and are present in almost every segment of the economy. Most of these optimization problems are NP-hard and computationally demanding, often requiring approximate solutions for large-scale instances. Machine learning frameworks that learn to approximate solutions to such hard optimization problems are a potentially promising avenue to address these difficulties, particularly when many closely related problem instances must be solved repeatedly. Supervised learning frameworks can train a model using the outputs of pre-solved instances. However, when the outputs are themselves approximations, when the optimization problem has symmetric solutions, and/or when the solver uses randomization, solutions to closely related instances may exhibit large differences and the learning task can become inherently more difficult. This paper demonstrates this critical challenge, connects the volatility of the training data to the ability of a model to approximate it, and proposes a method for producing (exact or approximate) solutions to optimization problems that are more amenable to supervised learning tasks. The effectiveness of the method is tested on hard non-linear nonconvex and discrete combinatorial problems.