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This week at UCLA, Pierre-Louis Lions gave one of this year’s Distinguished Lecture Series, on the topic of mean field games. These are a relatively novel class of systems of partial differential equations, that are used to understand the behaviour of multiple agents each individually trying to optimise their position in space and time, but with their preferences being partly determined by the choices of all the other agents, in the asymptotic limit when the number of agents goes to infinity. A good example here is that of traffic congestion: as a first approximation, each agent wishes to get from A to B in the shortest path possible, but the speed at which one can travel depends on the density of other agents in the area. A more light-hearted example is that of a Mexican wave (or audience wave), which can be modeled by a system of this type, in which each agent chooses to stand, sit, or be in an intermediate position based on his or her comfort level, and also on the position of nearby agents.

Under some assumptions, mean field games can be expressed as a coupled system of two equations, a Fokker-Planck type equation evolving forward in time that governs the evolution of the density function {m} of the agents, and a Hamilton-Jacobi (or Hamilton-Jacobi-Bellman) type equation evolving backward in time that governs the computation of the optimal path for each agent. The combination of both forward propagation and backward propagation in time creates some unusual “elliptic” phenomena in the time variable that is not seen in more conventional evolution equations. For instance, for Mexican waves, this model predicts that such waves only form for stadiums exceeding a certain minimum size (and this phenomenon has apparently been confirmed experimentally!).

Due to lack of time and preparation, I was not able to transcribe Lions’ lectures in full detail; but I thought I would describe here a heuristic derivation of the mean field game equations, and mention some of the results that Lions and his co-authors have been working on. (Video of a related series of lectures (in French) by Lions on this topic at the Collége de France is available here.)

To avoid (rather important) technical issues, I will work at a heuristic level only, ignoring issues of smoothness, convergence, existence and uniqueness, etc.

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