Machine Learning (Theory)

2/22/2009

Effective Research Funding

Tags: Funding,Research jl@ 10:17 am

With a worldwide recession on, my impression is that the carnage in research has not been as severe as might be feared, at least in the United States. I know of two notable negative impacts:

  1. It’s quite difficult to get a job this year, as many companies and universities simply aren’t hiring. This is particularly tough on graduating students.
  2. Perhaps 10% of IBM research was fired.

In contrast, around the time of the dot com bust, ATnT Research and Lucent had one or several 50% size firings wiping out much of the remainder of Bell Labs, triggering a notable diaspora for the respected machine learning group there. As the recession progresses, we may easily see more firings as companies in particular reach a point where they can no longer support research.

There are a couple positives to the recession as well.

  1. Both the implosion of Wall Street (which siphoned off smart people) and the general difficulty of getting a job coming out of an undergraduate education suggest that the quality of admitted phd students may increase. In half a decade when they start graduating, we might have some new and very creative ideas.
  2. The latest stimulus bill includes substantial additional research funding. This is particularly welcome news for those at universities, because it will compensate for other cutbacks which may be necessary there as endowments or state funding fall. It’s also particularly good for young researchers at universities who just got a position or succeed this year, as the derivative on research funding particularly impacts them.

There are two effects going on: Does a recession cause us to refocus on other possibly better ideas? Or does it cause us to focus on short term survival? The first effect helps research while the second effect does not. By far, most of the money invested by governments to fight the recession has gone towards survival, but a small fraction in the US is going towards other possibly better ideas, with a portion of that going towards research.

We could hope for a larger fraction of money heading towards new ideas, rather than rescuing old, but there is a basic issue: the apparatus for creation and use of new ideas in the US is simply too small—it may not be able to effectively use more funding. In order to justify further funding for research, we may need to be more creative than simply “give us more”.

However, this is easy. Throughout much of the 1900s, Bell Labs created many inventions which are fundamental to modern society, including the transistor, C(++), Unix, the laser, information theory, etc… In my view the vital ingredients for success are:

  1. Access to cutting edge problems. Even extraordinarily intelligent researchers can simply end up working on the wrong problem. Without direct access to and knowledge of such problems researchers can end up inventing their own, which occasionally works out well, but more often does not.
  2. Free time. This is both obvious and yet a common failure mode. Researchers at universities have many more demands on their time, including teaching, fundraising, mentoring, and running a university. Similarly, researchers at corporations can be sucked into patching an existing system rather than thinking about the best way to really solve a problem.
  3. Concentration. Two researchers working together can often manage much more than one apart, as each can bring relevant expertise and viewpoints necessary to solve a problem. This remains true up to the point where communication becomes a substantial overhead, which in my experience is about 5, but which we might imagine technology helps improve.

Bell Labs managed to satisfy all three of these desiderata. Some research universities manage to achieve at least access and concentration to some extent, but hidden difficulties exist. For example, professors often don’t work with other professors, because they are both too busy with students and they must make a case for tenure based on work which is unambiguously their own. I’m not extremely familiar with existing national labs, but I believe they often fail at (a)—at least research at national labs have had relatively little impact on newer fields such as computer science.

So, my suggestion would be funding research in modes which satisfy all three desiderata. The natural and easy way to do this is by the government partially subsidizing basic research at those corporations which have decided to fund basic research. In computer science at least, this includes Microsoft, IBM, Yahoo, Google, and what’s left of Bell Labs at ATnT and Alcatel. While this is precisely the conclusion you might expect from someone doing research at one of these places, it’s also what you would expect of someone intensely interested in research who sought out the best environment for research. In economic terms, these companies have for reasons of their own decided to provide a public good. As long as we are interested, as a nation, or as a civilization, in subsidizing this public good, it is desirable to do this as efficiently as possible.

Some people might think that basic research done at a university is inherently more desirable than the same in industry. I don’t see any reason for this. For example, it seems that patentable research is about as likely to be patented at a university as elsewhere, and hence equally restricted for public use over the duration of a patent. Other people might think that basic research only really happens at universities or national labs, but that simply doesn’t agree with history.

Given this, it’s odd that the rules for NSF funding, which is the premier source of funding for basic science in the US, generally requires university participation on proposals. This restriction naturally makes it easier for researchers at universities to acquire grant money than researchers not at universities. I don’t understand why this restriction is desirable from the viewpoint of a government wanting to effectively subsidize research.

2/18/2009

Decision by Vetocracy

Few would mistake the process of academic paper review for a fair process, but sometimes the unfairness seems particularly striking. This is most easily seen by comparison:

Paper Banditron Offset Tree Notes
Problem Scope Multiclass problems where only the loss of one choice can be probed. Strictly greater: Cost sensitive multiclass problems where only the loss of one choice can be probed. Often generalizations don’t matter. That’s not the case here, since every plausible application I’ve thought of involves loss functions substantially different from 0/1.
What’s new Analysis and Experiments Algorithm, Analysis, and Experiments As far as I know, the essence of the more general problem was first stated and analyzed with the EXP4 algorithm (page 16) (1998). It’s also the time horizon 1 simplification of the Reinforcement Learning setting for the random trajectory method (page 15) (2002). The Banditron algorithm itself is functionally identical to One-Step RL with Traces (page 122) (2003) in Bianca‘s thesis with the epsilon greedy strategy and a multiclass perceptron with update scaled by the importance weight.
Computational Time O(k) per example where k is the number of choices O(log k) per example Lower bounds on the sample complexity of learning in this setting are a factor of k worse than for supervised learning, implying that many more examples may be needed in practice. Consequently, learning algorithm speed is more important than in standard supervised learning.
Analysis Incomparable. An online regret analysis showing that if a small hinge loss predictor exists, a bounded number of mistakes occur. Also, an algorithm independent analysis of the fully realizable case. Incomparable. A learning reduction analysis showing how the regret of any base classifier bounds policy regret. Also contains a lower bound and comparable analysis of all plausible alternative reductions.
Experiments 1 dataset, comparing with no other approaches to solving the problem. 13 datasets, comparing with 2 other approaches to solve the problem.
Outcome Accepted at ICML Rejected at ICML, NIPS, UAI, and NIPS.

The reviewers of the Banditron paper made the right call. The subject is interesting, and analysis of a new learning domain is of substantial interest. Real advances in machine learning often come as new domains of application. The talk was well attended and generated substantial interest. It’s also important to remember the reviewers of the two papers probably did not overlap, so there was no explicit preference for A over B.

Why was the Offset Tree rejected? One of these rejections is easily explained as a fluke—we ran into a reviewer at UAI who believes that learning by memorization is the way to go. I, and virtually all machine learning people, disagree but some reviewers at UAI aren’t interested or expert in machine learning.

The striking thing about the other 3 rejects is that they all contain a reviewer who doesn’t read the paper. Instead, the reviewer asserts that learning reductions are bogus because for an alternative notion of learning reduction, made up by the reviewer, an obviously useless approach yields a factor of 2 regret bound. I believe this is the same reviewer each time, because the alternative theorem statement drifted over the reviews fixing bugs we pointed out in the author response.

The first time we encountered this review, we assumed the reviewer was just cranky that day—maybe we weren’t quite clear enough in explaining everything as it’s always difficult to get every detail clear in new subject matter. I have sometimes had a very strong negative impression of a paper which later turned out to be unjustified upon further consideration. Sometimes when a reviewer is cranky, they change their mind after the authors respond, or perhaps later, or perhaps never but you get a new set of reviewers the next time.

The second time the review came up, we knew there was a problem. If we are generous to the reviewer, and taking into account the fact that learning reduction analysis is a relatively new form of analysis, the fear that because an alternative notion of reduction is vacuous our notion of reduction might also be vacuous isn’t too outlandish. Fortunately, there is a way to completely address that—we added an algorithm independent lower bound to the draft (which was the only significant change in content over the submissions). This lower bound conclusively proves that our notion of learning reduction is not vacuous as is the reviewer’s notion of learning reduction.

The review came up a third time. Despite pointing out the lower bound quite explicitly, the reviewer simply ignored it. This more-or-less confirms our worst fears. Some reviewer is bidding for the paper with the intent to torpedo review it. They are uninterested in and unwiling to read the content itself.

Shouldn’t author feedback address this? Not if the reviewer ignores it.

Shouldn’t Double Blind reviewing help? Not if the paper only has one plausible source. The general problem area and method of analysis were freely discussed on hunch.net. We withheld public discussion of the algorithm itself for much of the time (except for a talk at CMU) out of respect for the review process.

Why doesn’t the area chair/program chair catch it? It took us 3 interactions to get it, so it seems unrealistic to expect someone else to get it in one interaction. In general, these people are strongly overloaded and the reviewer wasn’t kind enough to boil down the essence of the stated objection as I’ve done above. Instead, they phrase it as an example and do not clearly state the theorem they have in mind or distinguish the fact that the quantification of that theorem differs from the quantification of our theorems. More generally, my observation is that area chairs rarely override negative reviews because:

  1. It risks their reputation since defending a criticized work requires the kind of confidence that can only be inspired by a thorough personal review they don’t have time for.
  2. They may offend the reviewer they invited to review and personally know.
  3. They figure that the average review is similar to the average perception/popularity by the community anyways.
  4. Even if they don’t agree with the reviewer, it’s hard to fully discount the review in their consideration.

I’ve seen these effects create substantial mental gymnastics elsewhere.

Maybe you just ran into a cranky reviewer 3 times randomly Maybe so. However, the odds seem low enough and the 1/2 year cost of getting another sample high enough, that going with the working hypothesis seems indicated.

Maybe the writing needs improving. Often that’s a reasonable answer for a rejection, but in this case I believe not. We’ve run the paper by several people, who did not have substantial difficulties understanding it. They even understand the draft well enough to make a suggestion or two. More generally, no paper is harder to read than the one you picked because you want to reject it.

What happens next? With respect to the Offset Tree, I’m hopeful that we eventually find reviewers who appreciate an exponentially faster algorithm, good empirical results, or the very tight and elegant analysis, or even all three. For the record, I consider the Offset Tree a great paper. It remains a substantial advance on the state of the art, even 2 years later, and as far as I know the Offset Tree (or the Realizable Offset Tree) consistently beat all reasonable contenders both in prediction and computational performance. This is rare and precious, as many papers tradeoff one for the other. It yields a practical algorithm applicable to real problems. It substantially addresses the RL to classification reduction problem. It also has the first nonconstant algorithm independent lower bound for learning reductions.

With respect to the reviewer, I expect remarkably little. The system is designed to protect reviewers, so they have virtually no responsibility for their decisions. This reviewer has a demonstrated capability to sabotage the review process at ICML and NIPS and a demonstrated willingness to continue doing so indefinitely. The process of bidding for papers and making up reasons to reject them seems tedious, but there is no fundamental reason why they can’t continue doing so for several decades if they remain active in academia.

This experience has substantially altered my understanding and appreciation of the review process at conferences. The bidding mechanism commonly used, coupled with responsibility-free reviewing is an invitation to abuse. A clever abusive reviewer can sabotage perhaps 5 papers per conference (out of 8 reviewed), while maintaining a typical average score. While I don’t believe most people choose papers with intent to sabotage, the capability is there and used by at least one person and possibly others. If, for example, 5% of reviewers are willing to abuse the process this way and there are 100 reviewers, every paper must survive 5 vetoes. If there are 200 reviewers, every paper must survive 10 vetoes. And if there are 400 reviewers, every paper must survive 20 vetoes. This makes publishing any paper that offends someone difficult. The surviving papers are typically inoffensive or part of a fad strong enough that vetoes are held back. Neither category is representative of high quality decision making. These observations suggest that the conference with the most reviewers tend strongly toward faddy and inoffensive papers, both of which often lack impact in the long term. Perhaps this partly explains why NIPS is so weak when people start citation counting. Conversely, this would suggest that smaller conferences and workshops have a natural advantage. Similarly, the reviewing style in theory conferences seems better—the set of bidders for any paper is substantially smaller, implying papers must survive fewer vetos.

This decision making process can be modeled as a group of n decision makers, each of which has the opportunity to veto any action. When n is relatively small, this decision making process might work ok, depending on the decision makers, but as n grows larger, it’s difficult to imagine a worse decision making process. The closest representatives outside of academia I know are deeply bureacratic governments and other large organizations where many people must sign off on something before it takes place. These vetocracies are universally frustrating to interact with. A reasonable conjecture is that any decision making process with a large veto number has poor characteristics.

A basic question is: Is a vetocracy inevitable for large organizations? I believe the answer is no. The basic observation is that the value of n can be logarithmic in the number of participants in an organization rather than linear, as per reviewing under a bidding process. An essential force driving vetocracy creation is a desire to offload responsibility for decisions, so there is no clear decision maker. A large organization not deciding by vetocracy must have a very different structure, with clearly dilineated responsibility.

NIPS provides an almost perfect natural experiment in it’s workshop organization, which involves the very same community of people and subject matter, yet works in a very different manner. There are one or two workshop chairs who are responsible for selecting amongst workshop proposals, after which the content of the workshop is entirely up to the workshop organizers. If a workshop is rejected, it’s clear who is at fault, and if a workshop presentation is rejected, it is often clear by who. Some workshop chairs use a small set of reviewers, but even then the effective veto number remains small. Similarly, if a workshop ends up a flop, it’s relatively easy to see who to blame—either the workshop chair for not predicting it, or the organizers for failing to organize. I can’t think of a single time when I attended both the workshops and the conference that the workshops were less interesting than the conference. My understanding is that this observation is common. Given this discussion, it will be particularly interesting to see how the review process Michael and Leon setup for ICML this year pans out, as it is a system with notably more responsibility assignment than in previous years.

Journals end up looking relatively good with respect to vetocracy avoidance. The ones I’m familiar with have a chief editor who bears responsibility for routing papers to an action editor, who bears responsibility for choosing good reviewers. Every agent except the reviewers is often known by the authors, and the reviewers don’t act as additional vetoers in nearly as strong a manner as reviewers with the opportunity to bid.

This experience has also altered my view of blogging and research. On one hand, I’m very enthusiastic about research in general, and my research in particular, where we are regularly cracking conventionally impossible problems. On the other hand, it seems that some small number of people viewing a discussion silently decide they don’t like it, and veto it given the opportunity. It only takes one to turn strong paper into a years-long odyssey, so public discussion of research directions and topics in a vetocracy is akin to voluntarily wearing a “kick me” sign. While this a problem for me, I expect it to be even worse for the members of a vetocracy in the long term.

It’s hard to imagine any research community surviving without a serious online presence. When a prospective new researcher looks around at existing research, if they don’t find serious online discussion, they’ll assume it doesn’t exist under the “not on the internet so it doesn’t exist” principle. This will starve a field of new people. More generally, there is an opportunity to get feedback about research directions and problems much more rapidly than is otherwise possible, allowing us to avoid research on dead end topics which are pervasive. At some point, it may even seem that people not willing to discuss their research simply avoid doing so because it is critically lacking in one way or another. Since a vetocracy creates a substantial disincentive to discuss research directions online, we can expect that communities sticking with decision by vetocracy to be at a substantial disadvantage.

2/16/2009

KDNuggets

Tags: Machine Learning jl@ 7:16 am

Eric Zaetsch points out KDNuggets which is a well-developed mailing list/news site with a KDD flavor. This might particularly interest people looking for industrial jobs in machine learning, as the mailing list has many such.

2/4/2009

Optimal Proxy Loss for Classification

Many people in machine learning take advantage of the notion of a proxy loss: A loss function which is much easier to optimize computationally than the loss function imposed by the world. A canonical example is when we want to learn a weight vector w and predict according to a dot product fw(x)= sumi wixi
where optimizing squared loss (y-fw(x))2 over many samples is much more tractable than optimizing 0-1 loss I(y = Threshold(fw(x) – 0.5)).

While the computational advantages of optimizing a proxy loss are substantial, we are curious: which proxy loss is best? The answer of course depends on what the real loss imposed by the world is. For 0-1 loss classification, there are adherents to many choices:

  1. Log loss. If we confine the prediction to [0,1], we can treat it as a predicted probability that the label is 1, and measure loss according to log 1/p'(y|x) where p'(y|x) is the predicted probability of the observed label. A standard method for confining the prediction to [0,1] is logistic regression which exponentiates the dot product and normalizes.
  2. Squared loss. The squared loss approach (discussed above) is also quite common. It shares the same “proper scoring rule” semantics as log loss: the optimal representation-independent predictor is the conditional probability of the label y given the features x.
  3. Hinge loss. For hinge loss, you optimize max(0, 1- 4 (y – 0.5) (fw(x) – 0.5) ). The form of hinge loss is slightly unfamiliar, because the label is {0,1} rather than {-1,1}. The optimal prediction for hinge loss is not the probability of y given x but rather some value which is at least 1 if the most likely label is 1 and 0 or smaller if the most likely label is 0. Hinge loss was popularized with support vector machines. Hinge loss is not a proper scoring rule for mean, but since it does get the sign right, using it for classification is reasonable.

Many people have made qualitative arguments about why one loss is better than another. For example see Yaroslav’s old post for an argument about the comparison of log loss and hinge loss and why hinge loss might be better. In the following, I make an elementary quantitative argument.

Log loss is qualitatively dissimilar from the other two, because it is unbounded on the range of interest. Restated, there is no reason other than representational convenience that fw(x) needs to take a value outside of the interval [0,1] for squared loss or hinge loss. In fact, we can freely reduce these losses by considering instead the function fw‘(x) = max(0,min(1,fw(x))). The implication is that optimization of log loss can be unstable in ways that optimization of these other losses is not. This can be stated precisely by noting that sample complexity bounds (simple ones here) for 0-1 loss hold for fw‘(x) under squared or hinge loss, but the same theorem statement does not hold for log loss without additional assumptions. Since stability and convergence are of substantial interest in machine learning, this suggests not using log loss.

For further analysis, we must first define some function converting fw(x) into label predictions. The only reasonable approach is to threshold at 0.5. For log loss and squared loss, any other threshold is inconsistent. Since the optimal predictor for hinge loss always takes value 0 or 1, there is some freedom in how we convert, but a reasonable approach is to also threshold at 0.5.

Now, we want to analyze the stability of predictions. In other words, if an adversary picks the true conditional probability distribution p(y|x) and the prediction fw‘(x), how does the proxy loss of fw‘(x) bound the 0-1 loss? Since we imagine that the conditional distribution is noisy, it’s important to actually consider a regret: how well we do minus the loss of the best possible predictor.

For each of these losses, an optimal strategy of the adversary is to have p(y|x) take value 0.5 – eps and fw‘(x) = 0.5. The 0-1 regret induced is simply 2 eps, since the best possible predictor has error rate 0.5 – eps while the actual predictor has error rate 0.5 + eps. For hinge loss, the regret is eps and for squared loss the regret is eps2. Doing some algebra, this implies that 2 hinge_regret bounds 0-1 regret while 2 squared_regret0.5 bounds 0-1 regret. Since we are only interested in regrets less than 1, the square root is undesirable, and hinge loss is preferred, because a stronger convergence of squared loss is needed to achieve the same guarantee on 0-1 loss.

Can we improve on hinge loss? I don’t know any proxy loss which is quantitatively better, but generalizations exist. The regret of hinge loss is the same as for absolute value loss |y-fw‘(x)| since they are identical for 0,1 labels. One advantage of absolute value loss is that it has a known and sometimes useful semantics for values between 0 and 1: the optimal prediction is the median. This makes the work on quantile regression (Two Three) seem particularly relevant for machine learning.

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