Machine Learning (Theory)


Yet more nips thoughts

Tags: General DrewBagnell@ 12:13 pm

I only managed to make it out to the NIPS workshops this year so
I’ll give my comments on what I saw there.

The Learing and Robotics workshops lives again. I hope it
continues and gets more high quality papers in the future. The
most interesting talk for me was Larry Jackel’s on the LAGR
program (see John’s previous post on said program). I got some
ideas as to what progress has been made. Larry really explained
the types of benchmarks and the tradeoffs that had to be made to
make the goals achievable but challenging.

Hal Daume gave a very interesting talk about structured
prediction using RL techniques, something near and dear to my own
heart. He achieved rather impressive results using only a very
greedy search.

The non-parametric Bayes workshop was great. I enjoyed the entire
morning session I spent there, and particularly (the usually
desultory) discussion periods. One interesting topic was the
Gibbs/Variational inference divide. I won’t try to summarize
especially as no conclusion was reached. It was interesting to
note that samplers are competitive with the variational
approaches for many Dirichlet process problems. One open question
I left with was whether the fast variants of Gibbs sampling could
be made multi-processor as the naive variants can.

I also have a reading list of sorts from the main
conference. Most of the papers mentioned in previous posts on
NIPS are on that list as well as these: (in no particular order)

The Information-Form Data Association Filter
Sebastian Thrun, Brad Schumitsch, Gary Bradski, Kunle Olukotun

Divergences, surrogate loss functions and experimental design
XuanLong Nguyen, Martin Wainwright, Michael Jordan [ps.gz][pdf][bibtex]

Generalization to Unseen Cases
Teemu Roos, Peter Grünwald, Petri Myllymäki, Henry Tirri [ps.gz][pdf][bibtex]

Gaussian Process Dynamical Models
David Fleet, Jack Wang, Aaron Hertzmann [ps.gz][pdf][bibtex]

Convex Neural Networks
Yoshua Bengio, Nicolas Le Roux, Pascal Vincent, Olivier Delalleau,
Patrice Marcotte [ps.gz][pdf][bibtex]

Describing Visual Scenes using Transformed Dirichlet Processes
Erik Sudderth, Antonio Torralba, William Freeman, Alan Willsky

Learning vehicular dynamics, with application to modeling helicopters
Pieter Abbeel, Varun Ganapathi, Andrew Ng [ps.gz][pdf][bibtex]

Tensor Subspace Analysis
Xiaofei He, Deng Cai, Partha Niyogi [ps.gz][pdf][bibtex]


Yes , I am applying

Tags: General jl@ 6:43 pm

Every year about now hundreds of applicants apply for a research/teaching job with the timing governed by the university recruitment schedule. This time, it’s my turn—the hat’s in the ring, I am a contender, etc… What I have heard is that this year is good in both directions—both an increased supply and an increased demand for machine learning expertise.

I consider this post a bit of an abuse as it is neither about general research nor machine learning. Please forgive me this once.

My hope is that I will learn about new places interested in funding basic research—it’s easy to imagine that I have overlooked possibilities.

I am not dogmatic about where I end up in any particular way. Several earlier posts detail what I think of as a good research environment, so I will avoid a repeat. A few more details seem important:

  1. Application. There is often a tension between basic research and immediate application. This tension is not as strong as might be expected in my case. As evidence, many of my coauthors of the last few years are trying to solve particular learning problems and I strongly care about whether and where a learning theory is useful in practice.
  2. Duration. I would like my next move to be of indefinite duration.

Feel free to email me ( if there is a possibility you think I should consider.


Machine Learning Thoughts

Tags: General jl@ 12:04 am

I added a link to Olivier Bousquet’s machine learning thoughts blog. Several of the posts may be of interest.


Is the Google way the way for machine learning?

Tags: General jl@ 5:36 pm

Urs Hoelzle from Google gave an invited presentation at NIPS. In the presentation, he strongly advocates interacting with data in a particular scalable manner which is something like the following:

  1. Make a cluster of machines.
  2. Build a unified filesystem. (Google uses GFS, but NFS or other approaches work reasonably well for smaller clusters.)
  3. Interact with data via MapReduce.

Creating a cluster of machines is, by this point, relatively straightforward.

Unified filesystems are a little bit tricky—GFS is capable by design of essentially unlimited speed throughput to disk. NFS can bottleneck because all of the data has to move through one machine. Nevertheless, this may not be a limiting factor for smaller clusters.

MapReduce is a programming paradigm. Essentially, it is a combination of a data element transform (map) and an agreggator/selector (reduce). These operations are highly parallelizable and the claim is that they support the forms of data interaction which are necessary.
Apparently, the Nutch project has an open source implementation of mapreduce (but this is clearly the most nonstandard element).

Shifting towards this paradigm has several effects:

  1. It makes “big data” applications more viable.
  2. It makes some learning algorithms more viable than others. One way to think about this is in terms of statistical query learning algorithms. The (generalized) notion of statistical query algorithms is algorithms that rely upon only the results of expections of a (relatively small) number of functions. Any such algorithm can be implemented via mapreduce. The “naive bayes” algorithm and most decision tree algorithms can be easily phrased as statistical query algorithms. Support vector machines can (technically) be phrased as statistical query algorithms, but the number of queries scales with the number of datapoints. Gradient descent algorithms can also be phrased as statistical query algorithms. Learning algorithms which work on one example at a time are not generally statistical query algorithms.

    Another way to think about this is in terms of the complexity of the computation. Roughly speaking, as the amount of data scales, only O(n) or (perhaps) O(n log(n)) algorithms are tractable. This strongly favors online learning algorithms. Decision trees and naive bayes are (again) relatively reasonable. Support vector machines (or gaussian processes) encounter difficulties related to scaling.

There is a reasonable argument that the “low hanging fruit” of machine learning research is in the big data with enabling tools paradigm. This is because (a) the amount of data available has been growing far faster than the amount of computation and (b) we just haven’t had the tools to scale here, until recently.

I expect Urs is right: we should look in this direction.


The Webscience Future

Tags: General jl@ 10:47 am

The internet has significantly effected the way we do research but it’s capabilities have not yet been fully realized.

First, let’s acknowledge some known effects.

  1. Self-publishing By default, all researchers in machine learning (and more generally computer science and physics) place their papers online for anyone to download. The exact mechanism differs—physicists tend to use a central repository (Arxiv) while computer scientists tend to place the papers on their webpage. Arxiv has been slowly growing in subject breadth so it now sometimes used by computer scientists.
  2. Collaboration Email has enabled working remotely with coauthors. This has allowed collaborationis which would not otherwise have been possible and generally speeds research.

Now, let’s look at attempts to go further.

  1. Blogs (like this one) allow public discussion about topics which are not easily categorized as “a new idea in machine learning” (like this topic).
  2. Organization of some subfield of research. This includes Satinder Singh’s Reinforcement Learning pages, and, more generally books that have been placed online such as this one.
  3. Discussion Groups The kernel machines discussions provide a good example of some common format allowing discussion.
  4. Class notes have been placed online such as Avrim’s learning theory lecture notes.
  5. Wikipedia has an article on Machine Learning. The article gives a reasonable quick overview and is surely read by a very large number of people.
  6. Online Proceedings are now being used by several conferences such as NIPS.

Now, let’s consider some futures.

  1. Wikifuture Wikipedia becomes better to the point where it is a completely comprehensive listing of current research in machine learning. At some point, we-the-community realize this and begin to emphasize (and credit) information placed in wikipedia. This process reinforces itself to the point where “if it’s not in wikipedia, it doesn’t exist”.

    This future is significantly more probable than most people understand. As evidence compare the machine learning page three years ago (yep, it didn’t exist), two years ago, one year ago, and today. That progression strongly suggests that wikipedia:machine learning will continue to grow into a significant information resource.

    There are fundamental obstacles to the success of the wikipedia future.

    1. credit Wikipedia has only very weak mechanisms for crediting editors. A list of the changes done by one user account is about as much credit as is available. This is not enough to make career-deciding questions on. We could hope for a stronger link between identity and editor along with tools to track the value of particular edits (Think of counting hyperlinks as an analogue for counting citations).
    2. controversy Wikipedia has grown up in a nonmanipulative environment. When it was little known, the incentive to fabricate entries was not great. Now that it is becoming well known that incentive is growing. Character assasination by false article exists. In science, the thing to worry about is misplaced ideas of the importance of your topic of research since it is very difficult to be sufficiently interested in a research topic and simultaneously view it objectively. Research is about creating new ideas, and the location of these ideas in some general organization is in dispute by default.
  2. Evolutionary Progression Consider the following sequence of steps.
    1. Conference Organization We realize that having a list of online papers isn’t nearly as useful as having an organized list of online papers so the conferences which already have online proceedings create an explorable topic hierarchy.
    2. Time Organization We realize that the organization at one particular year’s conference is sketchy—research is a multiyear endeavor. Consequently, we start adding to last years topic hierarchy rather than creating a new one from scratch each year.
    3. Transformation We realize that it is better if papers are done in the language of the web. For example, it’s very handy to be able to hyperlink inside of a paper. A good solution to the math on the web problem would greatly help here.
    4. Consolidation We realize that there is a lot of redundancy in two papers on the same or a similar topic. They share an introduction, motivation, and (often) definitions. By joining the shared pieces, the contents of both papers can be made clearer.

    Each of these individual steps clearly yields something better. At the end of these steps, creating a paper is simply the process of creating a webpage or altering an existing webpage. We can imagine doing all of this while keeping the peer-review mechanisms of science intact, so the resulting process is simply better in all ways. It’s easier to author because for most papers much of the “filler” introduction/motivation/definition can be reused from previous papers. It’s easier to review, because reviewers can consider the result in context. Much of the difficulty of reviewing is simply due to the author and reviewer not being “on the same page” in how they understand things. An organized topic hierarchy greatly aids this.

  3. The unknown It is difficult to anticipate everything. What other futures might exist?

Which future comes about is dependent on many things—the decisions of community leaders, enabling ‘math-on-the-web’ technologies, etc…, so it is difficult to predict which future and when it will come about. Nevertheless, a potential exists and there are several paths leading towards reaching that potential.

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