Algorithms and generalizations

The Hungarian algorithm is one of many algorithms that have been devised that solve the linear assignment problem within time bounded by a polynomial expression of the number of agents.

The assignment problem is a special case of the transportation problem, which is a special case of the minimum cost flow problem, which in turn is a special case of a linear program. While it is possible to solve any of these problems using the simplex algorithm, each specialization has more efficient algorithms designed to take advantage of its special structure. If the cost function involves quadratic inequalities it is called the quadratic assignment problem.


Suppose that a taxi firm has three taxis (the agents) available, and three customers (the tasks) wishing to be picked up as soon as possible. The firm prides itself on speedy pickups, so for each taxi the “cost” of picking up a particular customer will depend on the time taken for the taxi to reach the pickup point. The solution to the assignment problem will be whichever combination of taxis and customers results in the least total cost.

However, the assignment problem can be made rather more flexible than it first appears. In the above example, suppose that there are four taxis available, but still only three customers. Then a fourth dummy task can be invented, perhaps called “sitting still doing nothing”, with a cost of 0 for the taxi assigned to it. The assignment problem can then be solved in the usual way and still give the best solution to the problem.

Similar tricks can be played in order to allow more tasks than agents, tasks to which multiple agents must be assigned (for instance, a group of more customers than will fit in one taxi), or maximizing profit rather than minimizing cost.

Formal mathematical definition

The formal definition of the assignment problem (or linear assignment problem) is

Given two sets, A and T, of equal size, together with a weight function C : A × TR. Find a bijection f : AT such that the cost function:
\sum_{a\in A}C(a,f(a))
is minimized.

Usually the weight function is viewed as a square real-valued matrix C, so that the cost function is written down as:

\sum_{a\in A}C_{a,f(a)}

The problem is “linear” because the cost function to be optimized as well as all the constraints contain only linear terms.

The problem can be expressed as a standard linear program with the objective function

\sum_{i\in A}\sum_{j\in T}C(i,j)x_{ij}

subject to the constraints

\sum_{j\in T}x_{ij}=1 for i\in A,
\sum_{i\in A}x_{ij}=1 for j\in T,
x_{ij}\ge 0 for i,j\in A,T.

The variable xij represents the assignment of agent i to task j, taking value 1 if the assignment is done and 0 otherwise. This formulation allows also fractional variable values, but there is always an optimal solution where the variables take integer values. This is because the constraint matrix is totally unimodular. The first constraint requires that every agent is assigned to exactly one task, and the second constraint requires that every task is assigned exactly one agent.

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