Search Algorithms Part 1: Problem Formulation and Searching for Solutions

Rithesh K
Rithesh K
Jul 13, 2018 · 6 min read

In the previous series of blogs, we have seen the different structures of the agents based on the nature of the environment it is operating in. In the current series, we will discuss more on the goal-based agent, and the search algorithms that gives the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ in these agents.

As mentioned previously, these blogs are very similar to the book “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach”. In fact, this series can be seen as a shorthand version of the book.

Types of Goal-based agents

We have seen that the reflex agents, whose actions are a direct mapping from the states of the environment, consumes a large space to store the mapping table and is inflexible. The goal-based agents consider the long-term actions and the desirability of the outcome, which is easier to train and is adaptable to the changing environment.

There are two kinds of goal-based agents: problem-solving agents and planning agents. Problem-solving agents consider each states of the world as indivisible, with no internal structure of the states visible to the problem-solving algorithms. Planning agents split up each state into variables and establishes relationship between them.

In this series, we will discuss more on problem-solving agents and the algorithms associated with them. We’ll keep the discussion on the planning agents for some other time.

In this post (and further too), as an example to explain the various algorithms, we consider the problem of traveling from one place to another (single-source single-destination path). Figure 1 gives the road-map of a part of Romania.

Figure 1: A simplified road map of part of Romania.

The problem is to travel from Arad to Bucharest in a day. For the agent, the goal will be to reach Bucharest the following day. Courses of action that doesn’t make agent to reach Bucharest on time can be rejected without further consideration, making the agent’s decision problem simplified.

Problem definition and formulation

Before we jump on to finding the algorithm for evaluating the problem and searching for the solution, we first need to define and formulate the problem.

Problem formulation involves deciding what actions and states to consider, given the goal. For example, if the agent were to consider the action to be at the level of “move the left foot by one inch” or “turn the steering wheel by 1 degree left”, there would be too many steps for the agent to leave the parking lot, let alone to Bucharest. In general, we need to abstract the state details from the representation.

A problem can be defined formally by 5 components:

  1. The initial state of the agent. In this case, the initial state can be described as In: Arad
  2. The possible actions available to the agent, corresponding to each of the state the agent resides in. For example, ACTIONS(In: Arad) = {Go: Sibiu, Go: Timisoara, Go: Zerind}
  3. The transition model describing what each action does. Let us represent it by RESULT(s, a) where s is the state the action is currently in and a is the action performed by the agent. In this example, RESULT(In: Arad, Go: Zerind) = In: Zerind.
  4. The goal test, determining whether the current state is a goal state. Here, the goal state is {In: Bucharest}
  5. The path cost function, which determine the cost of each path, which is reflecting in the performance measure. For the agent trying to reach Bucharest, time is essential, so we can set the cost function to be the distance between the places. (Here, we are ignoring the other factors that influence the traveling time). By convention, we define the cost function as c(s, a, s’), where s is the current state and a is the action performed by the agent to reach state s’.

The initial state, the actions and the transition model together define the state space of the problem — the set of all states reachable by any sequence of actions. Figure 1 is the graphical representation of the state space of the traveling problem. A path in the state space is a sequence of states connected by a sequence of actions.

The solution to the given problem is defined as the sequence of actions from the initial state to the goal states. The quality of the solution is measured by the cost function of the path, and an optimal solution has the lowest path cost among all the solutions.

Searching for Solutions

We can form a search tree from the state space of the problem to aid us in finding the solution. The initial state forms the root node and the branches from each node are the possible actions from the current node (state) to the child nodes (next states).

Figure 2: Partial search tree for finding route from Arad to Bucharest. The nodes Arad and Sibiu are opened

The six nodes in Figure 2, which don’t have any children (at least until now) are leaf nodes. The set of all leaf nodes available for expansion at any given point is called the frontier. The search strategy involves the expansion of the nodes in the frontier until the solution (or the goal state) is found (or there are no more nodes to expand).

We have to notice one peculiar thing in the search tree in Figure 2. There is a path from Arad to Sibiu, and back to Arad again. We say that In(Arad) is a repeated state, generated by a loopy path. This means that the search tree for Romania is infinite, even though the search space is limited. These loopy paths makes some of the algorithms to fail, making the problem seem unsolvable. In fact, a loopy path is a special case of redundant paths, where there are more than one paths from one state to another (for example, Arad — Sibiu and Arad — Zerind — Oradea — Sibiu).

The redundant path situation occurs in almost every problem, and often makes the solution algorithm less efficient, worsening the performance of the searching agent. One way to eliminate the redundancy is to utilize the advantage given by the problem definition itself. For example, in the case of traveling from Arad to Bucharest, since the path costs are additive and step costs are non-negative, only one path among the various redundant paths has the least cost (and it is the shortest distance between the two states), and loopy paths are never better than the same path with loops removed.

Another idea to avoid exploring redundant paths is to remember which states have been visited previously. Along with the search tree, an explored set is maintained which contains all the states previously visited. Newly generates which matches the previously generated nodes can be discarded. In this way, every step moves the states in the frontier into the explored region, and some states in the unexplored region into the frontier, until the solution is found.

Figure 3: The separation property of the above mentioned algorithm, as exploration is increased from the root (leftmost image) to its immediate successors (rightmost image). The frontier (white nodes) always separates the explores states (black) and the unexplored ones (gray).

Performance measure of Problem-solving Algorithms

We can evaluate an algorithm’s performance with these metrics:

  1. Completeness: Is the algorithm guaranteed to find a solution if there exist one?
  2. Optimality: Does the algorithm find the optimal solution?
  3. Time complexity: How long does it take for the algorithm to find a solution?
  4. Space complexity: How much memory is consumed in finding the solution?

In graph theory, the time and space complexity is measured using |V| and |E|, where V and E are the number of vertices and the number of edges in the graph respectively. But in AI, we explore the state space (which is a graph) of the problem using its equivalent search tree. So it is meaningful if we use b and d to measure the complexity, where b is the branching factor of the tree (maximum number of successors of any node) and d is the depth of the shallowest goal node.


In this post we have discussed how to define the problem so as to assist in formulation of the problem and to effectively find a solution. We have also seen the use of search tree in finding the solution and the ways to avoid the problem of redundancy. Finally, we have listed the metrics for measuring the performance of the search algorithms.

In the next blog, we will discuss the classical search algorithms,starting with uninformed search algorithms and then moving on to heuristic, or informed search algorithms. Engineering

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Rithesh K

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Rithesh K

AI Enthusiast. Loves Mathematics. Writing Short stories and Quotes are my hobbies. Engineering

Research, solution offering and training on AI, Deep learning, Robotics, DeepRL, Devops and Blockchain. Blogs emerging out of research, innovation and engineering at

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