The frequency distribution of a fitness function over regions of its domain is an important quantity for understanding the behavior of algorithms that employ randomized sampling to search the function. In general, exactly characterizing this distribution is at least as hard as the search problem, since the solutions typically live in the tails of the distribution. However, in some cases it is possible to efficiently retrieve a collection of quantities (called moments) that describe the distribution. In this paper, we consider functions of bounded epistasis that are defined over length-n strings from a finite alphabet of cardinality q. Many problems in combinatorial optimization can be specified as search problems over functions of this type. Employing Fourier analysis of functions over finite groups, we derive an efficient method for computing the exact moments of the frequency distribution of fitness functions over Hamming regions of the q-ary hypercube. We then use this approach to derive equations that describe the expected fitness of the offspring of any point undergoing uniform mutation. The results we present provide insight into the statistical structure of the fitness function for a number of combinatorial problems. For the graph coloring problem, we apply our results to efficiently compute the average number of constraint violations that lie within a certain number of steps of any coloring. We derive an expression for the mutation rate that maximizes the expected fitness of an offspring at each fitness level. We also apply the results to the slightly more complex frequency assignment problem, a relevant application in the domain of the telecommunications industry. As with the graph coloring problem, we provide formulas for the average value of the fitness function in Hamming regions around a solution and the expectation-optimal mutation rate.

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