Machine Learning (Theory)


What is the best regret transform reduction from multiclass to binary?

This post is about an open problem in learning reductions.

Background A reduction might transform a a multiclass prediction problem where there are k possible labels into a binary learning problem where there are only 2 possible labels. On this induced binary problem we might learn a binary classifier with some error rate e. After subtracting the minimum possible (Bayes) error rate b, we get a regret r = e – b. The PECOC(Probabilistic Error Correcting Output Code) reduction has the property that binary regret r implies multiclass regret at most 4r0.5.

The problem This is not the “rightest” answer. Consider the k=2 case, where we reduce binary to binary. There exists a reduction (the identity) with the property that regret r implies regret r. This is substantially superior to the transform given by the PECOC reduction, which suggests that a better reduction may exist for general k. For example, we can not rule out the possibility that a reduction R exists with regret transform guaranteeing binary regret r implies at most multiclass regret c(k) r where c(k) is a k dependent constant between 1 and 4.

Difficulty I believe this is a solvable problem, given some serious thought.

Impact The use of some reduction from multiclass to binary is common practice, so a good solution could be widely useful. One thing to be aware of is that there is a common and reasonable concern about the ‘naturalness’ of induced problems. There seems to be no way to address this concern other than via empirical testing. On the theoretical side, a better reduction may help us understand whether classification or l2 regression is the more natural primitive for reduction. The PECOC reduction essentially first turns a binary classifier into an l2 regressor and then uses the regressor repeatedly to make multiclass predictions.

Some background material which may help:

  1. Dietterich and Bakiri introduce Error Correcting Output Codes.
  2. Guruswami and Sahai analyze ECOC as an error transform reduction. (see lemma 2)
  3. Allwein, Schapire, and Singer generalize ECOC to use loss-based decoding.
  4. Beygelzimer and Langford showed that ECOC is not a regret transform and proved the PECOC regret transform.


NIPS paper evaluation criteria

John Platt, who is PC-chair for NIPS 2006 has organized a NIPS paper evaluation criteria document with input from the program committee and others.

The document contains specific advice about what is appropriate for the various subareas within NIPS. It may be very helpful, because the standards of evaluation for papers varies significantly.

This is a bit of an experiment: the hope is that by carefully thinking about and stating what is important, authors can better understand whether and where their work fits.

Update: The general submission page and Author instruction including how to submit an appendix.


The value of the orthodox view of Boosting

The term “boosting” comes from the idea of using a meta-algorithm which takes “weak” learners (that may be able to only barely predict slightly better than random) and turn them into strongly capable learners (which predict very well). Adaboost in 1995 was the first widely used (and useful) boosting algorithm, although there were theoretical boosting algorithms floating around since 1990 (see the bottom of this page).

Since then, many different interpretations of why boosting works have arisen. There is significant discussion about these different views in the annals of statistics, including a response by Yoav Freund and Robert Schapire.

I believe there is a great deal of value to be found in the original view of boosting (meta-algorithm for creating a strong learner from a weak learner). This is not a claim that one particular viewpoint obviates the value of all others, but rather that no other viewpoint seems to really capture important properties.

Comparing with all other views of boosting is too clumsy, so I will pick one: “boosting coordinate-wise gradient descent (CWGD for short) on an exponential loss function” which started here and compare it with Adaboost.

There are two advantages of the “weak to strong learning” view:

  1. Automatic computational speedups. In the “weak to strong learning” view, you automatically think about using a learning algorithm as a subroutine. As a consequence, we know the computation can be quite fast. In the CWGD view, using C4.5 (or some other algorithm) to pick the coordinate is an unmotivated decision. The straightforward thing to do is simply check each coordinate in turn which yields no computational speedups.
  2. Meta-algorithm based performance gains. Using a nontrivial base learning algorithm seems to improve performance. This is unsurprising—simply consider the limit where only one round of boosting is done. This is not well-accounted for by the CWGD view.

The point here is not that the old view subsumes the CWGD view, but rather that the CWGD view does not account for all the value in the old view. In particular, the CWGD view suggests that a broader family of algorithms may be useful than the weak-to-strong view might suggest.

This might seem like a “too meta” discussion, but it is very relevant to the process of research. We as researchers in machine learning have a choice of many methods of thinking about developing algorithms. Some methods are harder to use than others, so it is useful to think about what works well. Gradient descent is a core algorithmic tool in machine learning. After making a sequence of more-or-less unmotivated steps, we can derive Adaboost (and other algorithms) as an application of gradient descent. Or, we can study the notion of boosting weak learning to achieve strong learning and derive Adaboost. My impression is that the “weak learning to achieve strong learning” view is significantly more difficult to master than gradient descent, but it is also a significantly more precise mechanism for deriving useful algorithms. There are many gradient descent algorithms which are not very useful in machine learning. Amongst other things, the “weak to strong” view significantly informed some of the early development of learning reductions. It is no coincidence that Adaboost can be understood in this framework.


Big machine learning

Tags: Machine Learning jl@ 11:45 am

According to the New York Times, Yahoo is releasing Project Panama shortly. Project Panama is about better predicting which advertisements are relevant to a search, implying a higher click through rate, implying larger income for Yahoo. There are two things that seem interesting here:

  1. A significant portion of that improved accuracy is almost certainly machine learning at work.
  2. The quantitative effect is huge—the estimate in the article is $600*106.

Google already has such improvements and Microsoft Search is surely working on them, which suggest this is (perhaps) a $109 per year machine learning problem.

The exact methodology under use is unlikely to be publicly discussed in the near future because of the competitive enivironment. Hopefully we’ll have some public “war stories” at some point in the future when this information becomes less sensitive. For now, it’s reassuring to simply note that machine learning is having a big impact.


An ICML reject

Tags: Machine Learning,structured jl@ 9:03 pm

Hal, Daniel, and I have been working on the algorithm Searn for structured prediction. This was just conditionally accepted and then rejected from ICML, and we were quite surprised. By any reasonable criteria, it seems this is an interesting algorithm.

  1. Prediction Performance: Searn performed better than any other algorithm on all the problems we tested against using the same feature set. This is true even using the numbers reported by authors in their papers.
  2. Theoretical underpinning. Searn is a reduction which comes with a reduction guarantee: the good performance on a base classifiers implies good performance for the overall system. No other theorem of this type has been made for other structured prediction algorithms, as far as we know.
  3. Speed. Searn has no problem handling much larger datasets than other algorithms we tested against.
  4. Simplicity. Given code for a binary classifier and a problem-specific search algorithm, only a few tens of lines are necessary to implement Searn.
  5. Generality. Searn applies in a superset of the situations where other algorithms apply. It can use (and cope with) arbitrary loss functions over the data. It can also solve new problems not previously thought of as learning problems (and we do so!)

Much of the time, papers are about tradeoffs. A very typical (although often unstated) tradeoff is expending extra computation to gain better predictive performance in practice. In Searn, it seems there is no tradeoff compared to other approaches: you can have your lunch and eat it too.

In addition, this also solves a problem: yes, any classifier can be effectively and efficiently applied on complex structured prediction problems via Searn.

Why reject?
We, as respectfully as possible, simply disagree with the SPC about the stated grounds for rejection.

  1. The paper is difficult to read. This is true to some extent, but doesn’t seem reasonable. Fundamentally, there is a lot going on in terms of new ways of thinking about the problem and that simply requires some patience to read. One endorsement of this comes from a reviewer who said
    In the end, I do think there is something there, but I think its introduction should have been like that for CRF. Present the idea, with an understanding of why it should work, with one or two easily replicable examples. Then over a few papers reapplying it to new settings, people would get it.

    It isn’t often that a reviewer complains that there is too much content so it should be split across multiple papers.

  2. The SPC stated:
    The results, though, which essentially show that good local classifiers imply good global performance, are not that significant, and hold for other approaches that use local classifiers as building blocks. After all, perfect local classifiers provide perfect local accuracy, and therefore provide perfect global accuracy, and again provide perfect global loss of any kind.

    Both sentences are simply false in the setting we consider. In particular, no other algorithms appear to have a good local performance to global performance guarantee for general global loss functions. Furthermore, it is not the case that perfect local performance implies perfect global performance except (perhaps) in a noise free world. Most of us believe that the problems we address typically contain fundamental ambiguities and noise (that was certainly our mathematical model). It’s easy to setup a (noisy) distribution over inputs+loss such that best-possible-up-to-the-noise-limit local predictors are globally suboptimal.

  3. The SPC wanted us to contrast with Michael Collins, Discriminative Training Methods for Hidden Markov Models: Theory and Experiments with Perceptron Algorithms, EMNLP02. We instead contrasted with Michael Collins and Brian Roark, Incremental Parsing with the Perceptron Algorithm, ACL04. I believe any reasonable reading of these and the Searn paper will find the ACL04 paper superceeds the EMNLP02 paper in relevance.
  4. The SPC wanted us to contrast with IBT in V. Punyakanok, D. Roth, W. Yih, and D. Zimak, Learning and Inference over Constrained Output. IJCAI 2005. Here we messed up and confused it with V. Punyakanok and D. Roth, The Use of Classifiers in Sequential Inference. NIPS 2001 (which we did compare with). IBT is a modification of the earlier algorithm which integrates global information (in the form of problem specific constraints) into the local training process yielding performance gains. This modification addresses an orthogonal issue: Searn has not been used in any experiments yet where this side information is available. Searn is made to cope with global loss functions rather than global constraints.

These reasons for rejection seem (1) weak, (2) false, (3) very weak, and (4) weak.

Why post this? There are several reasons.

  1. The biggest personal reason is that we want to build on Searn. For whatever reason, it is psychologically difficult to build on rejected work. Posting it here gives us some sense that it is “out there” which may make it easier to build on it. We are trying to do research and simply don’t want to be delayed for 6 months or a year.
  2. One of the purposes of publishing a paper is to acquire feedback about the research, and there is some opportunity here.
  3. This is a nice algorithm for which we can easily imagine immediate use and general interest. Hal will be releasing the source code shortly which should make it very easy to use.
  4. Communal mental hygiene. It should not be the case, under any circumstances, that an (S)PC/reviewer makes false statements. If you think something is true but aren’t sure, it is appropriate to say “I think …” rather than simply asserting it as a fact. Asserting nonfact as fact is injurious to the process of research because it distorts the understanding of other people.

We aren’t looking for a flamefest. If there are no comments or simply comments about Searn, that’s fine. We aren’t looking for a reversal of the decision. A final decision has to be made for any conference and for better or worse this is it. The PC chairs should not be pestered—they are very busy people. Running ICML is a very difficult task, and we understand that some mistakes are inevitable when there are hundreds of papers involved.

This post violates a standard: avoiding talking about specific papers the poster has been working on. To remedy this, I will consider posts on other rejected papers. Any such post must have a very strong case.

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