In computer science, evolutionary computation is a family of algorithms for global optimization inspired by biological evolution, and the subfield of artificial intelligence and soft computing studying these algorithms. In technical terms, they are a family of population-based trial and error problem solvers with a metaheuristic or stochastic optimization character.
In evolutionary computation, an initial set of candidate solutions is generated and iteratively updated. Each new generation is produced by stochastically removing less desired solutions, and introducing small random changes. In biological terminology, a population of solutions is subjected to natural selection (or artificial selection) and mutation. As a result, the population will gradually evolve to increase in fitness, in this case the chosen fitness function of the algorithm.
Evolutionary computation techniques can produce highly optimized solutions in a wide range of problem settings, making them popular in computer science. Many variants and extensions exist, suited to more specific families of problems and data structures. Evolutionary computation is also sometimes used in evolutionary biology as an in silico experimental procedure to study common aspects of general evolutionary processes.
The use of evolutionary principles for automated problem solving originated in the 1950s. It was not until the 1960s that three distinct interpretations of this idea started to be developed in three different places.
Evolutionary programming was introduced by Lawrence J. Fogel in the US, while John Henry Holland called his method a genetic algorithm. In Germany Ingo Rechenberg and Hans-Paul Schwefel introduced evolution strategies. These areas developed separately for about 15 years. From the early nineties on they are unified as different representatives (“dialects”) of one technology, called evolutionary computing. Also in the early nineties, a fourth stream following the general ideas had emerged – genetic programming. Since the 1990s, nature-inspired algorithms are becoming an increasingly significant part of the evolutionary computation.
These terminologies denote the field of evolutionary computing and consider evolutionary programming, evolution strategies, genetic algorithms, and genetic programming as sub-areas.
The earliest computational simulations of evolution using evolutionary algorithms and artificial life techniques were performed by Nils Aall Barricelli in 1953, with first results published in 1954. Another pioneer in the 1950s was Alex Fraser, who published a series of papers on simulation of artificial selection. Artificial evolution became a widely recognised optimisation method as a result of the work of Ingo Rechenberg in the 1960s and early 1970s, who used evolution strategies to solve complex engineering problems. Genetic algorithms in particular became popular through the writing of John Holland. As academic interest grew, dramatic increases in the power of computers allowed practical applications, including the automatic evolution of computer programs. Evolutionary algorithms are now used to solve multi-dimensional problems more efficiently than software produced by human designers, and also to optimise the design of systems.