Understanding Phase Transitions with Local Optima Networks: Number Partitioning as a Case Study

Phase transitions play an important role in understanding search difficulty in combinatorial optimisation. However, previous attempts have not revealed a clear link between fitness landscape properties and the phase transition. We explore whether the global landscape structure of the number partitioning problem changes with the phase transition. Using the local optima network model, we analyse a number of instances before, during, and after the phase transition. We compute relevant network and neutrality metrics; and importantly, identify and visualise the funnel structure with an approach (monotonic sequences) inspired by theoretical chemistry. While most metrics remain oblivious to the phase transition, our results reveal that the funnel structure clearly changes. Easy instances feature a single or a small number of dominant funnels leading to global optima; hard instances have a large number of suboptimal funnels attracting the search. Our study brings new insights and tools to the study of phase transitions in combinatorial optimisation.