Machine Learning (Theory)


NIPS 2010

I enjoyed attending NIPS this year, with several things interesting me. For the conference itself:

  1. Peter Welinder, Steve Branson, Serge Belongie, and Pietro Perona, The Multidimensional Wisdom of Crowds. This paper is about using mechanical turk to get label information, with results superior to a majority vote approach.
  2. David McAllester, Tamir Hazan, and Joseph Keshet Direct Loss Minimization for Structured Prediction. This is about another technique for directly optimizing the loss in structured prediction, with an application to speech recognition.
  3. Mohammad Saberian and Nuno Vasconcelos Boosting Classifier Cascades. This is about an algorithm for simultaneously optimizing loss and computation in a classifier cascade construction. There were several other papers on cascades which are worth looking at if interested.
  4. Alan Fern and Prasad Tadepalli, A Computational Decision Theory for Interactive Assistants. This paper carves out some forms of natural not-MDP problems and shows their RL-style solution is tractable. It’s good to see people moving beyond MDPs, which at this point are both well understood and limited.
  5. Oliver Williams and Frank McSherry Probabilistic Inference and Differential Privacy. This paper is about a natural and relatively unexplored, and potentially dominating approach for achieving differential privacy and learning.

I also attended two workshops—Coarse-To-Fine and LCCC which were a fine combination. The first was about more efficient (and sometimes more effective) methods for learning which start with coarse information and refine, while the second was about parallelization and distribution of learning algorithms. Together, they were about how to learn fast and effective solutions.

The CtF workshop could have been named “Integrating breadth first search and learning”. I was somewhat (I hope not too) pesky, discussing Searn repeatedly during questions, since it seems quite plausible that a good application of Searn would compete with and plausibly improve on results from several of the talks. Eventually, I hope the conventional wisdom shifts to a belief that search and learning must be integrated for efficiency and robustness reasons. The talks in this workshop were uniformly strong in making that case. I was particularly interested in Drew‘s talk on a plausible improvement on Searn.

The level of agreement in approaches at the LCCC workshop was much lower, with people discussing many radically different approaches.

  1. Should data be organized by feature partition or example partition? Fernando points out that features often scale sublinearly in the number of examples, implying that an example partition addresses scale better. However, basic learning theory tells us that if the number of parameters scales sublinearly in the number of examples, then the value of additional samples asymptotes, implying a mismatched solution design. My experience is that a ‘not enough features’ problem can be dealt with by throwing all the missing features you couldn’t properly previously use, for example personalization.
  2. How can we best leverage existing robust distributed filesystem/MapReduce frameworks? There was near unanimity on the belief that MapReduce itself is of limited value for machine learning, but the step forward is unclear. I liked what Markus said: that no one wants to abandon the ideas of robustly storing data and moving small amounts of code to large amounts of data. The best way to leverage this capability to build great algorithms remains unclear to me.
  3. Every speaker was in agreement that their approach was faster, but there was great disagreement about what “fast” meant in an absolute sense. This forced me to think about an absolute measure of (input complexity)/(time) where we see results between 100 features/s and 10*106 features/s being considered “fast” depending on who is speaking. This scale disparity is remarkably extreme. A related detail is that the strength of baseline algorithms varies greatly.

I hope we’ll discover convincing answers to these questions in the near future.

2 Comments to “NIPS 2010”
  1. ?? says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I am reading some papers on structured prediction and most from Thorsten Joachims.

  2. Gordon Rios says:

    John, thanks for this write up … very helpful!

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