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# SurCo: Learning Linear SURrogates for COmbinatorial Nonlinear Optimization Problems

*Proceedings of the 40th International Conference on Machine Learning*, PMLR 202:10034-10052, 2023.

#### Abstract

Optimization problems with nonlinear cost functions and combinatorial constraints appear in many real-world applications but remain challenging to solve efficiently compared to their linear counterparts. To bridge this gap, we propose $\textbf{\emph{\texttt{SurCo}}}$ that learns linear $\underline{\text{Sur}}$rogate costs which can be used in existing $\underline{\text{Co}}$mbinatorial solvers to output good solutions to the original nonlinear combinatorial optimization problem. The surrogate costs are learned end-to-end with nonlinear loss by differentiating through the linear surrogate solver, combining the flexibility of gradient-based methods with the structure of linear combinatorial optimization. We propose three $\texttt{SurCo}$ variants: $\texttt{SurCo}-\texttt{zero}$ for individual nonlinear problems, $\texttt{SurCo}-\texttt{prior}$ for problem distributions, and $\texttt{SurCo}-\texttt{hybrid}$ to combine both distribution and problem-specific information. We give theoretical intuition motivating $\texttt{SurCo}$, and evaluate it empirically. Experiments show that $\texttt{SurCo}$ finds better solutions faster than state-of-the-art and domain expert approaches in real-world optimization problems such as embedding table sharding, inverse photonic design, and nonlinear route planning.