Optimizing Part of the Objective Function

Written by: Paul Rubin

Primary Source: OR in an OB World

A somewhat curious question showed up on a forum today. The author of the question has an optimization model (I’ll assume it is either a linear program or mixed integer linear program) of the form
& \textrm{maximize} & & \sum_{i=1}^{N}x_{i}\\
& \textrm{s.t.} & & x\in\mathcal{X}
where the feasible region $\mathcal{X}$ is presumably polyhedral. What the author wants to do is instead maximize the sum of the $K$ largest terms in the objective, for some fixed $K<N$. The question was how to do this.

In effect, the author wants to selectively turn some terms on and others off in the objective function. Any time I think about turning things on and off, I immediately think of using binary variables as the “switches”. That in turn suggests the likely need for auxiliary variables and the very likely need for a priori bounds on the things being turned on and off. Here is one solution, step by step, assuming that the $x$ variables are nonnegative and that we know a finite upper bound $U_i$ for each $x_i$.

1. Introduce a binary variable for each term to be switched on/off.

So we add variables $z_i \in \{0,1\}$ for $i\in 1\dots N$, with $z_i=1$ if and only if $x_i$ is to be counted.

2. Limit the number of terms to count.

This is just the constraint $$\sum_{i=1}^N z_i = K$$ (with the option to change the equality to $\le$ if you want up to $K$ terms counted.

3. Replace the objective terms with surrogates that can be turned on/off.

We will add real variables $y_1,\dots,y_N$ and make the objective $$\textrm{maximize} \sum_{i=1}^N y_i.$$

4. Connect the surrogate variables to the original variables and the on-off decisions.

Here we benefit from a key property: if we limit the objective function to $K$ terms, the fact that we are maximizing will naturally favor the $K$ largest terms. So we just need the following constraints:
y_{i} & \le x_{i} & & \forall i\in\left\{ 1,\dots,N\right\} \\
y_{i} & \le U_{i}z_{i} & \quad & \forall i\in\left\{ 1,\dots,N\right\} .
\end{alignat*}If $z_i = 0$, the second constraint will force $y_i=0$ and the term will not contribute to the objective function. If $z_i=1$, the second constraint will become vacuous and the first term will allow $y_i$ to contribute an amount up to $x_i$ to the objective. Since the objective is being maximized, $y_i=x_i$ is certain to occur.

A symmetric version of this will work to minimize the sum of the $K$ smallest terms in the objective. Minimizing the sum of the largest terms or maximizing the sum of the smallest terms is a bit trickier, requiring some extra constraints to enforce $y_i=x_i$ when $z_i = 1$.

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I'm an apostate mathematician, retired from a business school after 33 years of teaching mostly (but not exclusively) quantitative methods courses. My academic interests lie in operations research. I also study Tae Kwon Do a bit on the side.

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