Many research programs can be thought of as finding and building new useful abstractions. The running example I’ll use is learning reductions where I have experience. The basic abstraction here is that we can build a learning algorithm capable of solving classification problems up to a small expected regret. This is used repeatedly to solve more complex problems.
In working on a new abstraction, I think you typically run into many substantial problems of understanding, which make publishing particularly difficult.
- It is difficult to seriously discuss the reason behind or mechanism for abstraction in a conference paper with small page limits. People rarely see such discussions and hence have little basis on which to think about new abstractions. Another difficulty is that when building an abstraction, you often don’t know the right way to state things.
Here’s my current attempt: The process of abstraction for learning reductions can start with sample complexity bounds (or online learning against an adversary analysis). A very simple sample complexity bound is that for all sets of hypotheses H, for all distributions D on examples (x,y), and for all confidence parameters d
Pr(x,y)m~Dm(for all h in H: |e(h,D)-e(h,(x,y)m)| < (ln( |H|/ d )/m)0.5 ) > 1 – d
Here (x,y)m is a sequence of m IID samples, e(h,D) is the error rate of h on D and e(h,(x,y)m) is the empirical error rate of h on the set of IID samples.
The previous bound is a very simple example, and yet remarkably complex both to state and to interpret—many people have been lost by the meaning of d. The impact of this complexity is that it is difficult to effectively use these bounds in practical learning algorithm design, particularly in solving more complex learning problems where much more than one bit of prediction is required. This was a central frustration that I ran into in my thesis work. Some progress has been made since then, but it is still quite difficult. The abstraction in the learning reduction setting is:
- You throw away d, because it only has a logarithmic dependence anyways.
- You eliminate H and m on the theory that intelligent choices for H and m are made in practice.
- You eliminate the IID assumption, because it is no longer needed to define things
The statement then is
e(A((x,y)m),D)-e(h*,D) < eps
where A() is the hypothesis output by the learning algorithm, h* is the best possible predictor, and eps is used to parameterize the theorems. This abstraction is radical in some sense, but something radical was needed to yield tractable and useful analysis on the complex problems people need to solve in practice.
- A consequence of lack of familiarity, is that people often misread. In reading a paper, there is a temptation to not read carefully and fill in your understanding of things. Most of the time this works out well, but not here. For example, we saw many instances where people inserted IID sample assumptions or other things that simply weren’t there.
- Once you get past the lack of familiarity and misunderstandings, there is a feeling that the new abstraction is cheating. To some extent I understand, as I remember learning about abstractions in class, and I remember feeling that they were in some real sense cheating by dropping important details. For example:
- Big-O notation provides an upper bound specified up to constants. For example O(log n) computational complexity means there exists a constant c such that the number of operations requires is less than c log n. Big-O can be abused by hiding “constants” larger than the plausible values for the parameters. In machine learning, a particularly egregious case occurs in Bandit analysis where the punchline of some papers is “logarithmic regret”, hiding an arbitrarily large problem dependent constant.
- TCP provides a mechanism for reliable transport over an unreliable network. It is a very commonly used mechanism for sending information over the internet—you used TCP in reading this. TCP is both a programming construct and a mechanism for abstracting communicating over a network. The TCP abstraction is broken when the network is too unreliable for it to recover, such as on sketchy wireless networks where the programmer built for the TCP abstraction which wasn’t delivered.
- Dimensional analysis is a technique for quick analysis in physics. The basic idea is to just look at the units when estimating some quantity and combine them to get the right unit answer. For example, to compute the distance d traveled after time t with acceleration a, you simply use at2, since that formula is the only way to combine a with units of distance/time2 and t with units of time to get units of distance. This answer is off by a factor of 2 from what a more detailed analysis using integration yields, which is typical. Dimensional analysis can be misleading when the constants are very large. One example is in Gravitation where there is a table with time and distance equated since they are related by a constant—the speed of light 3*108 m/s. For example, E=mc2 becomes E=m.
Although the above breakages are real, the usefulness of these abstractions, in terms of allowing us to quickly think about and make decisions more than offsets the drawbacks. Indeed, even the breakages stated above are thought provoking or useful enough that I can’t even say it is wrong to consider them. This property that abstractions can be abused is generically essential to the process of abstraction itself. Abstraction is about neglecting details, and when these details are not neglectable, the abstraction is abused or ineffective. Because of this, any abstraction is insufficient for analyzing and solving real problems where the neglected details matter.
Just as for these abstractions, the learning reduction abstraction can be abused—the chosen learning algorithm can be pathetic yielding vacuous bounds, or the reduction can scramble the feature information with an encryption algorithm making it so no reasonable learning algorithm could yield other than pathetic performance. Similarly, there are situations in which I don’t know how to effectively use a learning reduction to build a learning algorithm, and it seems implausible that observation changes as more is learned in the future.
For a good abstraction, the drawbacks are matched by the advantages. The principle advantage is that there is a new way to examine and solve problems. This has several interesting effects.
- A good abstraction can capture a more complete specification of the problem. As an example, the sample complexity view of learning is broken in practice, because when insufficient performance is achieved people choose a different set of hypotheses H by throwing in additional features or choosing a different learning algorithm. Capturing this process in the sample complexity view requires an additional level of complexity. In the reduction view, this is entirely natural, because any means for achieving a better generalization—more/better features, a better learning algorithm, a better prior, sticking a human in the learning process, etc… are legitimate. This is particularly powerful when architecting solutions, providing a partial answer to the “What?” question Yehuda pointed out.
- A higher level abstraction can let you accidentally solve problems in other areas as well. A good example of this is error correcting tournaments which are useful for tournament design to select the best player/team/paper in real tournaments. Recently, I was amused to learn that a standard betting procedure for basketball tournaments exactly mirrors the importance weights suggested for the final elimination of ECTs. The first phase of ECTs provides a sound and practical method to seed a final elimination tournament, eliminating the need for (and biases of) a committee.
- Perhaps the most interesting effect is that the new abstraction can aid you in finding effective solutions to new problems. For learning reductions, there are about 3 compelling instances I’ve seen so far.
- Given training-time access to a good policy oracle, Searn provides a method for decomposing any complex prediction problem into simple problems, such that low regret solutions to the simple problems imply a low regret solution to the original problem. While Searn competes well (computationally and prediction-wise) with existing methods for linear chain style structured prediction, it really shines on more complex problems. Hal used Searn for automatic document summarization (see section 6.2) which previously wasn’t really solved via ML. More generally, when I learn about the details of other complex prediction systems for machine translation or vision, the base algorithms are tweaked, typically in ways that Searn would suggest. This suggests that Searn formalizes and automates the intuitions of practical people.
- The “one step RL” reduction in Bianca‘s thesis (page 119) provided tractable and effective approaches to learning in partial feedback problems where only the loss of a chosen label is learned. An even simpler reduction exists as a matter of folklore—estimate the the value of each label and then take an argmax. However, we have found classification approaches generally work better, where applicable, and as the theory suggests.
- Many commonly used algorithms for prediction have a running time linear (or worse) in the number of labels with decision trees a good exception. While simply predicting faster isn’t normally solving a “new problem”, an exponential improvement in computational time seems to merit this description because it allows entirely new kinds of applications. It turns out that it is both very easy to do logarithmic time prediction wrong, and that this problem is often fixable. Furthermore, it appears logarthmic time prediction can really work in practice over very many labels.
When we started working on learning reductions, I had no idea what either the difficulties or rewards were going to be—it simply seemed like a natural and compelling direction of investigation. Given the substantial difficulties encountered, it’s not at all clear that this pursuit was personally worthwhile. It has cost much time which could have been put to good use in other ways.
On the other hand, the advantages are also substantial. I’ve learned something about architecting solutions to problems, both expanding the domain of application for the field and providing a personal edge that I can bring to many conversations about ML. It’s also progress towards the AI goal, which interests me. When I think of what I could have worked on instead to achieve these goals, I don’t have any more compelling answer yet. Learning reductions seem to have accomplished more per unit thought than any other theoretical approach I can identify over the last 5 or 6 years. Furthermore, they are composable by design, so they should stay relevant (and perhaps even become more so), when people use an online active deep semisupervised probabilistic convolutional algorithm to solve a problem, particularly for complex problems.
As I said at the beginning, please join us for the tutorial, if you are interested.