Many fields of basic and applied science require efficiently exploring complex systems with high dimensionality. An example of such a challenge is optimising the performance of plasma fusion experiments. The highly-nonlinear and temporally-varying interaction between the plasma, its environment and external controls presents a considerable complexity in these experiments. A further difficulty arises from the fact that there is no single objective metric that fully captures both plasma quality and equipment constraints.
To efficiently optimise the system, we develop the Optometrist Algorithm, a stochastic perturbation method combined with human choice. Analogous to getting an eyeglass prescription, the Optometrist Algorithm confronts a human operator with two alternative experimental settings and associated outcomes. A human operator then chooses which experiment produces subjectively better results. This innovative technique led to the discovery of an unexpected record confinement regime with positive net heating power in a field-reversed configuration plasma, characterised by a >50% reduction in the energy loss rate and concomitant increase in ion temperature and total plasma energy.