Query Complexity of Derivative-Free Optimization

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 25 (NIPS 2012)

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Kevin G. Jamieson, Robert Nowak, Ben Recht


Derivative Free Optimization (DFO) is attractive when the objective function's derivatives are not available and evaluations are costly. Moreover, if the function evaluations are noisy, then approximating gradients by finite differences is difficult. This paper gives quantitative lower bounds on the performance of DFO with noisy function evaluations, exposing a fundamental and unavoidable gap between optimization performance based on noisy evaluations versus noisy gradients. This challenges the conventional wisdom that the method of finite differences is comparable to a stochastic gradient. However, there are situations in which DFO is unavoidable, and for such situations we propose a new DFO algorithm that is proved to be near optimal for the class of strongly convex objective functions. A distinctive feature of the algorithm is that it only uses Boolean-valued function comparisons, rather than evaluations. This makes the algorithm useful in an even wider range of applications, including optimization based on paired comparisons from human subjects, for example. Remarkably, we show that regardless of whether DFO is based on noisy function evaluations or Boolean-valued function comparisons, the convergence rate is the same.