Machine Learning (Theory)

12/6/2014

Vowpal Wabbit 7.8 at NIPS

I just created Vowpal Wabbit 7.8, and we are planning to have an increasingly less heretical followup tutorial during the non-“ski break” at the NIPS Optimization workshop. Please join us if interested.

I always feel like things are going slow, but in the last year, but there have been many changes overall. Notes for 7.7 are here. Since then, there are several areas of improvement as well as generalized bug fixes and refactoring.

  1. Learning to Search: Hal completely rewrote the learning to search system, enough that the numbers here are looking obsolete. Kai-Wei has also created several advanced applications for entity-relation and dependency parsing which are promising.
  2. Languages Hal also created a good python library, which includes call-backs for learning to search. You can now develop advanced structured prediction solutions in a nice language. Jonathan Morra also contributed an initial Java interface.
  3. Exploration The contextual bandit subsystem now allows evaluation of an arbitrary policy, and an exploration library is now factored out into an independent library (principally by Luong with help from Sid and Sarah). This is critical for real applications because randomization must happen at the point of decision.
  4. Reductions The learning reductions subsystem has continued to mature, although the perfectionist in me is still dissatisfied. As a consequence, it’s now pretty easy to program new reductions, and the efficiency of these reductions has generally improved. Several news ones are cooking.
  5. Online Learning Alekh added an online SVM implementation based on LaSVM. This is known to parallelize well via the para-active approach.

This project has grown quite a bit—there are about 30 different people contributing to VW since the last release, and there is now a VW meetup (December 8th!) in the bay area that I wish I could attend.

12/1/2013

NIPS tutorials and Vowpal Wabbit 7.4

At NIPS I’m giving a tutorial on Learning to Interact. In essence this is about dealing with causality in a contextual bandit framework. Relative to previous tutorials, I’ll be covering several new results that changed my understanding of the nature of the problem. Note that Judea Pearl and Elias Bareinboim have a tutorial on causality. This might appear similar, but is quite different in practice. Pearl and Bareinboim’s tutorial will be about the general concepts while mine will be about total mastery of the simplest nontrivial case, including code. Luckily, they have the right order. I recommend going to both :-)

I also just released version 7.4 of Vowpal Wabbit. When I was a frustrated learning theorist, I did not understand why people were not using learning reductions to solve problems. I’ve been slowly discovering why with VW, and addressing the issues. One of the issues is that machine learning itself was not automatic enough, while another is that creating a very low overhead process for doing learning reductions is vitally important. These have been addressed well enough that we are starting to see compelling results. Various changes:

  • The internal learning reduction interface has been substantially improved. It’s now pretty easy to write new learning reduction. binary.cc provides a good example. This is a very simple reduction which just binarizes the prediction. More improvements are coming, but this is good enough that other people have started contributing reductions.
  • Zhen Qin had a very productive internship with Vaclav Petricek at eharmony resulting in several systemic modifications and some new reductions, including:
    1. A direct hash inversion implementation for use in debugging.
    2. A holdout system which takes over for progressive validation when multiple passes over data are used. This keeps the printouts ‘honest’.
    3. An online bootstrap mechanism system which efficiently provides some understanding of prediction variations and which can sometimes effectively trade computational time for increased accuracy via ensembling. This will be discussed at the biglearn workshop at NIPS.
    4. A top-k reduction which chooses the top-k of any set of base instances.
  • Hal Daume has a new implementation of Searn (and Dagger, the codes are unified) which makes structured prediction solutions far more natural. He has optimized this quite thoroughly (exercising the reduction stack in the process), resulting in this pretty graph.
    part of speech tagging time accuracy tradeoffs
    Here, CRF++ is commonly used conditional random field code, SVMstruct is an SVM-style approach to classification, and CRF SGD is an online learning CRF approach. All of these methods use the same features. Fully optimized code is typically rough, but this one is less than 100 lines.

I’m trying to put together a tutorial on these things at NIPS during the workshop break on the 9th and will add details as that resolves for those interested enough to skip out on skiing :-)

Edit: The VW tutorial will take place during the break at the big learning workshop from 1:30pm – 3pm at Harveys Emerald Bay B.

9/29/2012

Vowpal Wabbit, version 7.0

A new version of VW is out. The primary changes are:

  1. Learning Reductions: I’ve wanted to get learning reductions working and we’ve finally done it. Not everything is implemented yet, but VW now supports direct:
    1. Multiclass Classification –oaa or –ect.
    2. Cost Sensitive Multiclass Classification –csoaa or –wap.
    3. Contextual Bandit Classification –cb.
    4. Sequential Structured Prediction –searn or –dagger

    In addition, it is now easy to build your own custom learning reductions for various plausible uses: feature diddling, custom structured prediction problems, or alternate learning reductions. This effort is far from done, but it is now in a generally useful state. Note that all learning reductions inherit the ability to do cluster parallel learning.

  2. Library interface: VW now has a basic library interface. The library provides most of the functionality of VW, with the limitation that it is monolithic and nonreentrant. These will be improved over time.
  3. Windows port: The priority of a windows port jumped way up once we moved to Microsoft. The only feature which we know doesn’t work at present is automatic backgrounding when in daemon mode.
  4. New update rule: Stephane visited us this summer, and we fixed the default online update rule so that it is unit invariant.

There are also many other small updates including some contributed utilities that aid the process of applying and using VW.

Plans for the near future involve improving the quality of various items above, and of course better documentation: several of the reductions are not yet well documented.

8/24/2012

Patterns for research in machine learning

There are a handful of basic code patterns that I wish I was more aware of when I started research in machine learning. Each on its own may seem pointless, but collectively they go a long way towards making the typical research workflow more efficient. Here they are:

  1. Separate code from data.
  2. Separate input data, working data and output data.
  3. Save everything to disk frequently.
  4. Separate options from parameters.
  5. Do not use global variables.
  6. Record the options used to generate each run of the algorithm.
  7. Make it easy to sweep options.
  8. Make it easy to execute only portions of the code.
  9. Use checkpointing.
  10. Write demos and tests.

Click here for discussion and examples for each item. Also see Charles Sutton’s and HackerNews’ thoughts on the same topic.

My guess is that these patterns will not only be useful for machine learning, but also any other computational work that involves either a) processing large amounts of data, or b) algorithms that take a significant amount of time to execute. Share this list with your students and colleagues. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it.

12/13/2011

Vowpal Wabbit version 6.1 & the NIPS tutorial

I just made version 6.1 of Vowpal Wabbit. Relative to 6.0, there are few new features, but many refinements.

  1. The cluster parallel learning code better supports multiple simultaneous runs, and other forms of parallelism have been mostly removed. This incidentally significantly simplifies the learning core.
  2. The online learning algorithms are more general, with support for l1 (via a truncated gradient variant) and l2 regularization, and a generalized form of variable metric learning.
  3. There is a solid persistent server mode which can train online, as well as serve answers to many simultaneous queries, either in text or binary.

This should be a very good release if you are just getting started, as we’ve made it compile more automatically out of the box, have several new examples and updated documentation.

As per tradition, we’re planning to do a tutorial at NIPS during the break at the parallel learning workshop at 2pm Spanish time Friday. I’ll cover the basics, leaving the fun stuff for others.

  1. Miro will cover the L-BFGS implementation, which he created from scratch. We have found this works quite well amongst batch learning algorithms.
  2. Alekh will cover how to do cluster parallel learning. If you have access to a large cluster, VW is orders of magnitude faster than any other public learning system accomplishing linear prediction. And if you are as impatient as I am, it is a real pleasure when the computers can keep up with you.

This will be recorded, so it will hopefully be available for viewing online before too long.

I hope to see you soon :)

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