First of all, let us import PICOS:

>>> import picos

Output settings

PICOS makes heavy use of unicode symbols to generate pretty output. If you find that some of these symbols are not available on your terminal, you can call ascii or latin1 to restrict the charset used:

>>> X = picos.SymmetricVariable("X", 4)       # Create a dummy variable.
>>> print(X >> 0)                             # Default representation of X ≽ 0.
X ≽ 0
>>> picos.latin1()                            # Limit to ISO 8859-1 (Latin-1).
>>> print(X >> 0)
X » 0
>>> picos.ascii()                             # Limit to pure ASCII.
>>> print(X >> 0)
X >> 0

For the sake of this tutorial, we return to the full beauty of unicode:

>>> picos.default_charset()  # The same as picos.unicode().


Every optimization endeavor starts with variables. As of PICOS 2.0, the preferred way to create variables is to create an instance of the desired variable class:

>>> from picos import RealVariable, BinaryVariable
>>> t = RealVariable("t")                     # A scalar.
>>> x = RealVariable("x", 4)                  # A column vector with 4 elements.
>>> Y = RealVariable("Y", (2, 4))             # A 2×4 matrix.
>>> Z = RealVariable("Z", (4, 2))             # A 4×2 matrix.
>>> w = BinaryVariable("w")                   # A binary scalar.

Now, let’s inspect these variables:

>>> w
<1×1 Binary Variable: w>
>>> Y
<2×4 Real Variable: Y>
>>> x.shape
(4, 1)
>>> Z.name

Assigning a value

Assigning values to variables is usually the solver’s job, but we can do it manually:

>>> t.value = 2
>>> # In the case of a binary variable, we can only assign a (near) 0 or 1:
>>> w.value = 0.5  
Traceback (most recent call last):
ValueError: Failed to assign a value to mutable w: Data is not near-binary with
    absolute tolerance 1.0e-04: Largest difference is 5.0e-01.
>>> print(Z)
>>> Z.value = range(8)
>>> print(Z)  # If a variable is valued, prints the value instead.
[ 0.00e+00  4.00e+00]
[ 1.00e+00  5.00e+00]
[ 2.00e+00  6.00e+00]
[ 3.00e+00  7.00e+00]

As you can see from the last example, PICOS uses column-major order when loading one-dimensional data such as a Python range into a matrix. The documentation of load_data explains PICOS’ data loading concept in greater detail.

Affine expressions

The fundamental building blocks of optimization models are affine (matrix) expressions. Each entry of such an expression is simply a linear combination of any number of scalar variables plus a constant offset. The variable objects that we have defined above are special cases of affine expression that refer to themselves via an identity transformation.

We can now use our variables to create more advanced affine expressions, which are stored as instances of ComplexAffineExpression or of its subclass AffineExpression. For instance, we may transpose a matrix variable using the suffix .T:

>>> Y
<2×4 Real Variable: Y>
>>> Y.T
<4×2 Real Linear Expression: Yᵀ>

PICOS expression types overload the standard Python math operators so that you can denote, for instance, the sum of two expressions as follows:

>>> Z + Y.T
<4×2 Real Linear Expression: Z + Yᵀ>

The overloaded operators will convert arbitrary data on the fly:

>>> t + 1
<1×1 Real Affine Expression: t + 1>
>>> x + 1  # The 1 is broadcasted to a 4×1 vector of all ones.
<4×1 Real Affine Expression: x + [1]>


Constants are simply affine expressions with no linear part and are more commonly referred to as data. By default, PICOS uses a short dummy string to represent multidimensional constants, and reshapes them as needed:

>>> Y + [1, -2, 3, -4, 5, -6, 7, 8]           # Load list as a 2×4 matrix.
<2×4 Real Affine Expression: Y + [2×4]>

If you want to give your constant data a meaningful name and fix its shape for more type safety, you can do this using Constant:

>>> from picos import Constant
>>> alpha = Constant("α", 23)                 # Load 23 under the name α.
>>> b = Constant("b", range(4))               # Load as a column vector.
>>> C = Constant("C", [1, -2, 3, -4, 5, -6, 7, 8], (2, 4)); C
<2×4 Real Constant: C>
>>> Y + C
<2×4 Real Affine Expression: Y + C>

The data loading semantics of Constant or when loading data on the fly are the same as when valuing variables (load_data). In particular, you can seamlessly input CVXOPT or NumPy matrices:

>>> import numpy
>>> Y + numpy.array([[1, 2, 3, 4], [5, 6, 7, 8]])
<2×4 Real Affine Expression: Y + [2×4]>

Overloaded operators

Now that we have some variables (t, x, w, Y and Z) and a couple of constant parameters (\alpha, b, C), let us create some more affine expressions with them:

>>> C.shape, Z.shape                          # Recall the shapes.
((2, 4), (4, 2))
>>> C*Z                                       # Left multiplication.
<2×2 Real Linear Expression: C·Z>
>>> Z*C                                       # Right multiplication.
<4×4 Real Linear Expression: Z·C>
>>> C*Z*C                                     # Left and right multiplication.
<2×4 Real Linear Expression: C·Z·C>
>>> alpha*Y                                   # Scalar multiplication.
<2×4 Real Linear Expression: α·Y>
>>> t/alpha - alpha/2                         # Division and subtraction.
<1×1 Real Affine Expression: t/α - α/2>
>>> (b | x)                                   # Dot product.
<1×1 Real Linear Expression: ⟨b, x⟩>
>>> # Generalized dot product for matrices: ⟨A, B⟩ = tr(A·Bᴴ):
>>> (C | Y)
<1×1 Real Linear Expression: ⟨C, Y⟩>
>>> b^x                                       # Hadamard (element-wise) product.
<4×1 Real Linear Expression: b⊙x>
>>> C@Z                                       # Kronecker product.
<8×8 Real Linear Expression: C⊗Z>


Python slicing notation can be used to extract single elements or submatrices:

>>> Y[0, 1]                                   # Element in 1st row, 2nd column.
<1×1 Real Linear Expression: Y[0,1]>
>>> x[1:3]                                    # 2nd and 3rd element of x.
<2×1 Real Linear Expression: x[1:3]>
>>> x[-1]                                     # Last element of x.
<1×1 Real Linear Expression: x[-1]>
>>> Y[1,:]                                    # 2nd row of Y.
<1×4 Real Linear Expression: Y[1,:]>
>>> C[:, 1:3]*Y[:, -2::-2]                    # Extended slicing with step size.
<2×2 Real Linear Expression: C[:,1:3]·Y[:,-2::-2]>

In the last example, we select only the second and third column of C as well as the columns of Y with an even index considered in reverse order. The full power and notation of slicing is explained in Matrix Slicing.


We can also create larger affine expressions by concatenating them vertically with & or horizontally with //:

>>> (b & 2*b & x & C.T*C*x) // x.T
<5×4 Real Affine Expression: [b, 2·b, x, Cᵀ·C·x; xᵀ]>

You have to be a little careful when it comes to operator precedence, because Python has the binding strength of & and // built into its grammar with logical disjunction and integral division in mind. When in doubt, use parenthesis around your blocks.

Broadcasting and reshaping

To recall an example we’ve seen earlier with variables, scalars are broadcasted to the necessary shape to allow an addition or subtraction to take place:

>>> 5*x - alpha
<4×1 Real Affine Expression: 5·x - [α]>

Note, however, that apart from this simple broadcasting rule, the shape of a PICOS constant (loaded via Constant) is already fixed. You can’t add a 8 \times 1 vector to a 4 \times 2 matrix:

>>> Z + (x // b)  
Traceback (most recent call last):
TypeError: Invalid operation BiaffineExpression.__add__(Z, [x; b]):
    The operand shapes of 4×2 and 8×1 do not match.

The reason is simply that PICOS does not know which side to reshape. You can make the example work by being more explicit:

>>> Z + (x // b).reshaped((4, 2))
<4×2 Real Affine Expression: Z + reshaped([x; b], 4×2)>

Summing multiple expressions

Since affine expressions overload +, you could use Python’s sum to add a bunch of them. However, the string representation can become rather long:

>>> # Create a sequence of matrix constants with sensible names:
>>> A = [Constant("A[{}]".format(i), range(i, i + 8), (2, 4)) for i in range(5)]
>>> A[0]
<2×4 Real Constant: A[0]>
>>> sum([A[i]*Z for i in range(5)])
<2×2 Real Linear Expression: A[0]·Z + A[1]·Z + A[2]·Z + A[3]·Z + A[4]·Z>

To obtain a shorter representation, use picos.sum instead:

>>> picos.sum([A[i]*Z for i in range(5)])
<2×2 Real Linear Expression: ∑(A[i]·Z : i ∈ [0…4])>

This works for all kinds of expressions and will look hard to find some pattern in the summands’ string descriptions.

Norms and quadratics


The norm of an affine expression can be expressed using Python’s built-in abs function. If x is an affine vector, abs(x) denotes its Euclidean norm \sqrt{x^T x}:

>>> abs(x)
<Euclidean Norm: ‖x‖>

If the affine expression is a matrix, abs returns its Frobenius norm \Vert M \Vert_F = \sqrt{\operatorname{trace} (M^T M)}:

>>> abs(Z - 2*C.T)
<Frobenius Norm: ‖Z - 2·Cᵀ‖>

The absolute value of a scalar is expressed in the same way:

>>> abs(t)
<Absolute Value: |t|>

As is the modulus of a complex expression:

>>> t + 1j
<1×1 Complex Affine Expression: t + 1j>
>>> abs(t + 1j)
<Complex Modulus: |t + 1j|>

Additional norms are available through the Norm class.


Quadratic expressions can be formed in several ways:

>>> abs(x)**2                                 # Squared norm.
<Squared Norm: ‖x‖²>
>>> t**2 - x[1]*x[2] + 2*t - alpha            # Sum involving quadratic terms.
<Quadratic Expression: t² - x[1]·x[2] + 2·t - α>
>>> (x[1] - 2) * (t + 4)                      # Product of affine expressions.
<Quadratic Expression: (x[1] - 2)·(t + 4)>
>>> Y[0,:]*x                                  # Row vector times column vector.
<Quadratic Expression: Y[0,:]·x>
>>> (x + 2 | Z[:,1])                          # Scalar product.
<Quadratic Expression: ⟨x + [2], Z[:,1]⟩>
>>> (t & alpha) * C * x                       # Quadratic form.
<Quadratic Expression: [t, α]·C·x>

Note that there is no natural way to define a vector or matrix of quadratic expressions. In PICOS, only affine expressions can be multidimensional.

Defining a problem

Now that we know how to construct affine and quadratic expressions and norms, it is time to use them as part of an optimization problem:

>>> from picos import Problem
>>> P = Problem()
>>> P.set_objective("min", (t - 5)**2 + 2)
>>> print(P)
Quadratic Program
  minimize (t - 5)² + 2
    1×1 real variable t

Next we’ll search a solution for this problem, but first we configure that only the solver CVXOPT may be used so that the documentation examples are reproducible. We can do this by assigning to the problem’s options attribute:

>>> P.options.solver = "cvxopt"

We can now obtain a solution by calling solve:

>>> solution = P.solve()
>>> solution
<feasible primal solution (claimed optimal) from cvxopt>
>>> solution.primals
{<1×1 Real Variable: t>: [4.999997568104307]}

Unless disabled by passing apply_solution=False to solve, the solution is automatically applied to the variables involved in the problem definition, so that the entire Problem is now valued:

>>> round(t, 5)
>>> round(P, 5)

The Python functions round, int, float and complex are automatically applied to the value attribute of variables, expressions and problems.

Setting options

We’ve already seen the solver option used which allows you to take control over which of the available solvers should be used. You can display all available options and their default values by printing the options instance (we’ve cut some from the output):

>>> print(P.options)
Modified solver options:
  solver              = cvxopt (default: None)

Default solver options:
  apply_solution      = True
  verbosity           = 0

If you want to change an option only for a single solution attempt, you can also pass it to solve as a keyword argument:

>>> # Solve again but don't apply the result.
>>> solution = P.solve(apply_solution=False)


Constrained optimization is only half the fun without the constraints. PICOS again provides overloaded operators to define them:

>>> t <= 5
<1×1 Affine Constraint: t ≤ 5>
>>> x[0] == x[-1]
<1×1 Affine Constraint: x[0] = x[-1]>
>>> abs(x)**2 <= t
<Squared Norm Constraint: ‖x‖² ≤ t>
>>> abs(x)**2 >= t
<Nonconvex Quadratic Constraint: ‖x‖² ≥ t>

Unless there are solvers or reformulation strategies that can deal with a certain nonconvex constraint type, as is the case for the \lVert x \rVert^2 \geq t constranint above, PICOS will raise a TypeError to let you know that such a constraint is not supported:

>>> abs(x) <= t
<5×1 SOC Constraint: ‖x‖ ≤ t>
>>> abs(x) >= t
Traceback (most recent call last):
TypeError: Cannot lower-bound a nonconcave norm.

When working with multidimensional affine expressions, the inequality operators >= and <= are understood element-wise (or to put it more mathy, they represent conic inequality with respect to the nonnegative orthant):

>>> Y >= C
<2×4 Affine Constraint: Y ≥ C>

It is possible to define linear matrix inequalities for use in semidefinite programming with the operators >> and << denoting the Loewner order:

>>> from picos import SymmetricVariable
>>> S = SymmetricVariable("S", 4)
>>> S >> C.T*C
<4×4 LMI Constraint: S ≽ Cᵀ·C>

Other conic inequalities do not have a Python operator of their own, but you can denote set membership of an affine expression in a cone. To make this possible, the operator << is also overloaded to denote “is element of”:

>>> abs(x) <= t            # Recall that this is a second order cone inequality.
<5×1 SOC Constraint: ‖x‖ ≤ t>
>>> t // x << picos.soc()  # We can also write it like this.
<5×1 SOC Constraint: ‖[t; x][1:]‖ ≤ [t; x][0]>

Here soc is a shorthand for SecondOrderCone, defined as the convex set

\mathcal{Q}^n = \left\{
    x \in \mathbb{R}^n
    x_1 \geq \sqrt{\sum_{i = 2}^n x_i^2}

Similarly, we can constrain an expression to be in the rotated second order cone

\mathcal{R}_p^n = \left\{
    x \in \mathbb{R}^n
    p x_1 x_2 \geq \sum_{i = 2}^n x_i^2 \land x_1, x_2 \geq 0

parameterized by p:

>>> picos.rsoc(p=1) >> x
<4×1 RSOC Constraint: ‖x[2:]‖² ≤ x[0]·x[1] ∧ x[0], x[1] ≥ 0>

Other sets you can use like this include Ball, Simplex and the ExponentialCone.

Constrained optimization

Let’s get back to our quadratic program P, which we have already solved to optimality with t = 5:

>>> print(P)
Quadratic Program
  minimize (t - 5)² + 2
    1×1 real variable t

Adding constraints

We can now add the constraints that t must be the sum over all elements of x and that every element of x may be at most 1:

>>> Csum = P.add_constraint(t == x.sum)
>>> Cone = P.add_constraint(x <= 1)
>>> print(P)
Quadratic Program
  minimize (t - 5)² + 2
    1×1 real variable t
    4×1 real variable x
  subject to
    t = ∑(x)
    x ≤ [1]

Now let’s solve the problem again and see what we get:

>>> P.solve()
<primal feasible solution pair (claimed optimal) from cvxopt>
>>> round(P, 5)
>>> round(t, 5)
>>> x.value
<4x1 matrix, tc='d'>
>>> print(x.value)
[ 1.00e+00]
[ 1.00e+00]
[ 1.00e+00]
[ 1.00e+00]

Note that multidimensional values such as that of x are returned as CVXOPT matrix types.

Slack and duals

Since our problem has constraints, we now have slack values and a dual solution as well:

>>> Csum.slack
>>> Csum.dual
>>> print(Cone.slack)
[ 9.31e-12]
[ 9.31e-12]
[ 9.31e-12]
[ 9.31e-12]

>>> print(Cone.dual)
[ 2.00e+00]
[ 2.00e+00]
[ 2.00e+00]
[ 2.00e+00]

We did not round the values this time, to showcase that solvers don’t always produce exact solutions even if the problem is “easy”. The variable t is also not exactly 4:

>>> t.value

To learn more about dual values, see Dual Values. For controlling the numeric precision requirements, see Numeric Tolerances.

Removing constraints

Let’s say we are not happy with our upper bound on x and we’d rather constrain it to be inside a unit simplex. We can remove the former constraint as follows:

>>> P.remove_constraint(Cone)

Instead of the constraint itself, we could also have supplied its index in the problem, as constraints remain in the order in which you add them. Now let’s add the new constraint:

>>> Csimplex = P.add_constraint(x << picos.Simplex())
>>> print(P)
Quadratic Program
  minimize (t - 5)² + 2
    1×1 real variable t
    4×1 real variable x
  subject to
    t = ∑(x)
    x ∈ {x ≥ 0 : ∑(x) ≤ 1}

If we solve again we expect t to be 1:

>>> solution = P.solve()
>>> round(t, 5)

If the selected solver supports this, changes to a problem’s constraints and objective are passed in the form of updates to the solver’s internal state which can make successive solution searches much faster. Unfortunately, CVXOPT is stateless so we don’t get an advantage here.

Grouping constraints

You can also add and remove constraints as a group. Let’s compute four real numbers between 0 and 1, represented by x_1 to x_4 (x[0] to x[3]), such that their minimum distance is maximized:

>>> from pprint import pprint
>>> P.reset()                                 # Reset the problem, keep options.
>>> d = RealVariable("d", 3)                  # A vector of distances.
>>> P.set_objective("max", picos.min(d))      # Maximize the minimum distance.
>>> C1 = P.add_constraint(x[0] >= 0)          # Numbers start at 0.
>>> C2 = P.add_constraint(x[3] <= 1)          # And end at 1.
>>> # Use constraint groups to order the x[i] and map their distance to y:
>>> G1 = P.add_list_of_constraints([x[i - 1] <= x[i] for i in range(4)])
>>> G2 = P.add_list_of_constraints([d[i] == x[i+1] - x[i] for i in range(3)])
>>> pprint(G1)                                # Show the constraints added.
[<1×1 Affine Constraint: x[-1] ≤ x[0]>,
 <1×1 Affine Constraint: x[0] ≤ x[1]>,
 <1×1 Affine Constraint: x[1] ≤ x[2]>,
 <1×1 Affine Constraint: x[2] ≤ x[3]>]
>>> pprint(G2)
[<1×1 Affine Constraint: d[0] = x[1] - x[0]>,
 <1×1 Affine Constraint: d[1] = x[2] - x[1]>,
 <1×1 Affine Constraint: d[2] = x[3] - x[2]>]
>>> print(P)
Optimization Problem
  maximize min(d)
    3×1 real variable d
    4×1 real variable x
  subject to
    x[0] ≥ 0
    x[3] ≤ 1
    x[i-1] ≤ x[i] ∀ i ∈ [0…3]
    d[i] = x[i+1] - x[i] ∀ i ∈ [0…2]

This looks promising and the constraint groups are nicely formatted, let’s solve the problem and see what we get:

>>> P.solve()
<primal feasible solution pair (claimed optimal) from cvxopt>
>>> print(x)
[ 5.00e-01]
[ 5.00e-01]
[ 5.00e-01]
[ 5.00e-01]
>>> print(d)
[ 1.88e-11]
[ 1.88e-11]
[ 1.88e-11]

Apparently there is an error! Revisiting our problem definition, it seems the first constraint in G_1, that is x[-1] <= x[0], was unnecessary and forces all x_i to take the same value. Luckily, we can remove it from the group by first specifying the group to access (counting single constraints as groups of size one) and then the constraint to remove from it:

>>> P.remove_constraint((2, 0))          # Remove 1st constraint from 3rd group.
>>> pprint(P.get_constraint((2,)))       # Show the modified 3rd group.
[<1×1 Affine Constraint: x[0] ≤ x[1]>,
 <1×1 Affine Constraint: x[1] ≤ x[2]>,
 <1×1 Affine Constraint: x[2] ≤ x[3]>]

Now it should work:

>>> print(P)
Optimization Problem
  maximize min(d)
    3×1 real variable d
    4×1 real variable x
  subject to
    x[0] ≥ 0
    x[3] ≤ 1
    x[i] ≤ x[i+1] ∀ i ∈ [0…2]
    d[i] = x[i+1] - x[i] ∀ i ∈ [0…2]
>>> _ = P.solve()  # Don't show or save the solution object.
>>> print(x)
[ ...]
[ 3.33e-01]
[ 6.67e-01]
[ 1.00e+00]
>>> print(d)
[ 3.33e-01]
[ 3.33e-01]
[ 3.33e-01]

(If you see an ellipsis in an example that means we’ve cut out a near-zero to allow the other values to be validated automatically.)