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Automatic differentiation (also known as *autodiff*,
*AD*, or *algorithmic
differentiation*) is a widely used tool in optimization. The `solve`

function uses automatic differentiation by default in problem-based optimization for
general nonlinear objective functions and constraints; see Automatic Differentiation in Optimization Toolbox.

Automatic differentiation is a set of techniques for evaluating derivatives (gradients) numerically. The method uses symbolic rules for differentiation, which are more accurate than finite difference approximations. Unlike a purely symbolic approach, automatic differentiation evaluates expressions numerically early in the computations, rather than carrying out large symbolic computations. In other words, automatic differentiation evaluates derivatives at particular numeric values; it does not construct symbolic expressions for derivatives.

*Forward mode*automatic differentiation evaluates a numerical derivative by performing elementary derivative operations concurrently with the operations of evaluating the function itself. As detailed in the next section, the software performs these computations on a computational graph.*Reverse mode*automatic differentiation uses an extension of the forward mode computational graph to enable the computation of a gradient by a reverse traversal of the graph. As the software runs the code to compute the function and its derivative, it records operations in a data structure called a*trace*.

As many researchers have noted (for example, Baydin, Pearlmutter, Radul, and
Siskind [1]), for a scalar
function of many variables, reverse mode calculates the gradient more efficiently
than forward mode. Because an objective function is scalar, `solve`

automatic differentiation uses reverse mode for scalar optimization. However, for
vector-valued functions such as nonlinear least squares and equation solving,
`solve`

uses forward mode for some calculations. See Automatic Differentiation in Optimization Toolbox.

Consider the problem of evaluating this function and its gradient:

$$f(x)={x}_{1}\mathrm{exp}\left(-\frac{1}{2}\left({x}_{1}^{2}+{x}_{2}^{2}\right)\right).$$

Automatic differentiation works at particular points. In this case, take
*x*_{1} = 2,
*x*_{2} = 1/2.

The following computational graph encodes the calculation of the function
*f*(*x*).

To compute the gradient of *f*(*x*) using
forward mode, you compute the same graph in the same direction, but modify the
computation based on the elementary rules of differentiation. To further simplify
the calculation, you fill in the value of the derivative of each subexpression
*u _{i}* as you go. To compute the
entire gradient, you must traverse the graph twice, once for the partial derivative
with respect to each independent variable. Each subexpression in the chain rule has
a numeric value, so the entire expression has the same sort of evaluation graph as
the function itself.

The computation is a repeated application of the chain rule. In this example, the
derivative of *f* with respect to
*x*_{1} expands to this expression:

$$\begin{array}{c}\frac{df}{d{x}_{1}}=\frac{d{u}_{6}}{d{x}_{1}}\\ =\frac{\partial {u}_{6}}{\partial {u}_{-1}}+\frac{\partial {u}_{6}}{\partial {u}_{5}}\frac{\partial {u}_{5}}{\partial {x}_{1}}\\ =\frac{\partial {u}_{6}}{\partial {u}_{-1}}+\frac{\partial {u}_{6}}{\partial {u}_{5}}\frac{\partial {u}_{5}}{\partial {u}_{4}}\frac{\partial {u}_{4}}{\partial {x}_{1}}\\ =\frac{\partial {u}_{6}}{\partial {u}_{-1}}+\frac{\partial {u}_{6}}{\partial {u}_{5}}\frac{\partial {u}_{5}}{\partial {u}_{4}}\frac{\partial {u}_{4}}{\partial {u}_{3}}\frac{\partial {u}_{3}}{\partial {x}_{1}}\\ =\frac{\partial {u}_{6}}{\partial {u}_{-1}}+\frac{\partial {u}_{6}}{\partial {u}_{5}}\frac{\partial {u}_{5}}{\partial {u}_{4}}\frac{\partial {u}_{4}}{\partial {u}_{3}}\frac{\partial {u}_{3}}{\partial {u}_{1}}\frac{\partial {u}_{1}}{\partial {x}_{1}}.\end{array}$$

Let $${\dot{u}}_{i}$$ represent the derivative of the expression
*u _{i}* with respect to

To compute the partial derivative with respect to
*x*_{2}, you traverse a similar
computational graph. Therefore, when you compute the gradient of the function, the
number of graph traversals is the same as the number of variables. This process can
be slow for many applications, when the objective function or nonlinear constraints
depend on many variables.

Reverse mode uses one forward traversal of a computational graph to set up the trace. Then it computes the entire gradient of the function in one traversal of the graph in the opposite direction. For problems with many variables, this mode is far more efficient.

The theory behind reverse mode is also based on the chain rule, along with
associated adjoint variables denoted with an overbar. The adjoint variable for
*u _{i}* is

$${\overline{u}}_{i}=\frac{\partial f}{\partial {u}_{i}}.$$

In terms of the computational graph, each outgoing arrow from a variable
contributes to the corresponding adjoint variable by its term in the chain rule. For
example, the variable *u*_{–1} has outgoing
arrows to two variables, *u*_{1} and
*u*_{6}. The graph has the associated
equation

$$\begin{array}{c}\frac{\partial f}{\partial {u}_{-1}}=\frac{\partial f}{\partial {u}_{1}}\frac{\partial {u}_{1}}{\partial {u}_{-1}}+\frac{\partial f}{\partial {u}_{6}}\frac{\partial {u}_{6}}{\partial {u}_{-1}}\\ ={\overline{u}}_{1}\frac{\partial {u}_{1}}{\partial {u}_{-1}}+{\overline{u}}_{6}\frac{\partial {u}_{6}}{\partial {u}_{-1}}.\end{array}$$

In this calculation, recalling that $${u}_{1}={u}_{-1}^{2}$$ and *u*_{6} =
*u*_{5}*u*_{–1}, you obtain

$${\overline{u}}_{-1}={\overline{u}}_{1}2{u}_{-1}+{\overline{u}}_{6}{u}_{5}.$$

During the forward traversal of the graph, the software calculates the
intermediate variables *u _{i}*. During the
reverse traversal, starting from the seed value $${\overline{u}}_{6}=\frac{\partial f}{\partial f}=1$$, the reverse mode computation obtains the adjoint values for all
variables. Therefore, reverse mode computes the gradient in just one computation,
saving a great deal of time compared to forward mode.

The following figure shows the computation of the gradient in reverse mode for the function

$$f(x)={x}_{1}\mathrm{exp}\left(-\frac{1}{2}\left({x}_{1}^{2}+{x}_{2}^{2}\right)\right).$$

Again, the computation takes *x*_{1} = 2,
*x*_{2} = 1/2. The reverse mode computation
relies on the *u _{i}* values that are obtained
during the computation of the function in the original computational graph. In the
right portion of the figure, the computed values of the adjoint variables appear
next to the adjoint variable names, using the formulas from the left portion of the
figure.

The final gradient values appear as $${\overline{u}}_{0}=\frac{\partial f}{\partial {u}_{0}}=\frac{\partial f}{\partial {x}_{2}}$$ and $${\overline{u}}_{-1}=\frac{\partial f}{\partial {u}_{-1}}=\frac{\partial f}{\partial {x}_{1}}$$.

For more details, see Baydin, Pearlmutter, Radul, and Siskind [1] or the Wikipedia article on automatic differentiation [2].

Automatic differentiation (AD) applies to the `solve`

and
`prob2struct`

functions under the following conditions:

The objective and constraint functions are supported, as described in Supported Operations on Optimization Variables and Expressions. They do not require use of the

`fcn2optimexpr`

function.The solver called by

`solve`

is`fmincon`

,`fminunc`

,`fsolve`

, or`lsqnonlin`

.For optimization problems, the

`'ObjectiveDerivative'`

and`'ConstraintDerivative'`

name-value pair arguments for`solve`

or`prob2struct`

are set to`'auto'`

,`'auto-forward'`

, or`'auto-reverse'`

.For equation problems, the

`'EquationDerivative'`

option is set to`'auto'`

,`'auto-forward'`

, or`'auto-reverse'`

.

When AD Applies | All Constraint Functions Supported | One or More Constraints Not Supported |
---|---|---|

Objective Function Supported | AD used for objective and constraints | AD used for objective only |

Objective Function Not Supported | AD used for constraints only | AD not used |

When these conditions are not satisfied, `solve`

estimates gradients by
finite differences, and `prob2struct`

does not create gradients in its
generated function files.

Solvers choose the following type of AD by default:

For a general nonlinear objective function,

`fmincon`

defaults to reverse AD for the objective function.`fmincon`

defaults to reverse AD for the nonlinear constraint function when the number of nonlinear constraints is less than the number of variables. Otherwise,`fmincon`

defaults to forward AD for the nonlinear constraint function.For a general nonlinear objective function,

`fminunc`

defaults to reverse AD.For a least-squares objective function,

`fmincon`

and`fminunc`

default to forward AD for the objective function. For the definition of a problem-based least-squares objective function, see Write Objective Function for Problem-Based Least Squares.`lsqnonlin`

defaults to forward AD when the number of elements in the objective vector is greater than or equal to the number of variables. Otherwise,`lsqnonlin`

defaults to reverse AD.`fsolve`

defaults to forward AD when the number of equations is greater than or equal to the number of variables. Otherwise,`fsolve`

defaults to reverse AD.

**Note**

To use automatic derivatives in a problem converted by `prob2struct`

, pass options specifying these derivatives.

options = optimoptions('fmincon','SpecifyObjectiveGradient',true,... 'SpecifyConstraintGradient',true); problem.options = options;

Currently, AD works only for first derivatives; it does not apply to second or higher
derivatives. So, for example, if you want to use an analytic Hessian to speed your
optimization, you cannot use `solve`

directly, and must instead use the
approach described in Supply Derivatives in Problem-Based Workflow.

[1] Baydin, Atilim Gunes,
Barak A. Pearlmutter, Alexey Andreyevich Radul, and Jeffrey Mark Siskind. "Automatic
Differentiation in Machine Learning: A Survey." *The Journal of Machine
Learning Research,* 18(153), 2018, pp. 1–43. Available at https://arxiv.org/abs/1502.05767.

[2] *Automatic
differentiation.* Wikipedia. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_differentiation.

- Problem-Based Optimization Setup
- Supported Operations on Optimization Variables and Expressions
- Effect of Automatic Differentiation in Problem-Based Optimization