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Neural Computation

August 2009, Vol. 21, No. 8, Pages 2363-2404
(doi: 10.1162/neco.2009.11-07-643)
© 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Randomized Shortest-Path Problems: Two Related Models
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This letter addresses the problem of designing the transition probabilities of a finite Markov chain (the policy) in order to minimize the expected cost for reaching a destination node from a source node while maintaining a fixed level of entropy spread throughout the network (the exploration). It is motivated by the following scenario. Suppose you have to route agents through a network in some optimal way, for instance, by minimizing the total travel cost—nothing particular up to now—you could use a standard shortest-path algorithm. Suppose, however, that you want to avoid pure deterministic routing policies in order, for instance, to allow some continual exploration of the network, avoid congestion, or avoid complete predictability of your routing strategy. In other words, you want to introduce some randomness or unpredictability in the routing policy (i.e., the routing policy is randomized). This problem, which will be called the randomized shortest-path problem (RSP), is investigated in this work. The global level of randomness of the routing policy is quantified by the expected Shannon entropy spread throughout the network and is provided a priori by the designer. Then, necessary conditions to compute the optimal randomized policy—minimizing the expected routing cost—are derived. Iterating these necessary conditions, reminiscent of Bellman's value iteration equations, allows computing an optimal policy, that is, a set of transition probabilities in each node. Interestingly and surprisingly enough, this first model, while formulated in a totally different framework, is equivalent to Akamatsu's model (1996), appearing in transportation science, for a special choice of the entropy constraint. We therefore revisit Akamatsu's model by recasting it into a sum-over-paths statistical physics formalism allowing easy derivation of all the quantities of interest in an elegant, unified way. For instance, it is shown that the unique optimal policy can be obtained by solving a simple linear system of equations. This second model is therefore more convincing because of its computational efficiency and soundness. Finally, simulation results obtained on simple, illustrative examples show that the models behave as expected.