Continuizing Solutions

This post is about a general technique for problem solving which I’ve never seen taught (in full generality), but which I’ve found very useful.

Many problems in computer science turn out to be discretely difficult. The best known version of such problems are NP-hard problems, but I mean ‘discretely difficult’ in a much more general way, which I only know how to capture by examples.

  1. ERM In empirical risk minimization, you choose a minimum error rate classifier from a set of classifiers. This is NP hard for common sets, but it can be much harder, depending on the set.
  2. Experts In the online learning with experts setting, you try to predict well so as to compete with a set of (adversarial) experts. Here the alternating quantifiers of you and an adversary playing out a game can yield a dynamic programming problem that grows exponentially.
  3. Policy Iteration The problem with policy iteration is that you learn a new policy with respect to an old policy, which implies that simply adopting the new policy can go very wrong.

For each of these problems, there are “continuized” solutions which can yield smaller computation, more elegant mathematics, or both.

  1. ERM By shifting from choosing a single classifier to choosing a stochastic classifier we can prove a new style of bound which is significantly tighter, easier to state, and easier to understand than traditional bounds in the traditional setting. This is the PAC-Bayes bound idea.
  2. Experts By giving the adversary slightly more power—the ability to split experts and have them fractionally predict one way vs. another, the optimal policy becomes much easier to compute (quadratic in the horizon, or maybe less). This is the continuous experts idea.
  3. Policy Iteration For policy iteration, by stochastically mixing the old and the new policy, we can find a new policy better than the old policy. This is the conservative policy iteration idea.

There is some danger to continuizing. The first and second examples both involve a setting shift, which may not be valid—in general your setting should reflect your real problem rather than the thing which is easy to solve. However, even with the setting shift, the solutions appear so compellingly more elegant that it is hard to not hope to use them in a solution to the original setting.

I have not seen a good formulation of the general approach of continuizing. Nevertheless, I expect to see continuizing in more places and to use it in the future. By making it explicit, perhaps this can be made eaesier.

One Reply to “Continuizing Solutions”

  1. Another example of this is the popular algorithm for normalized cuts (which is also NP complete in the discrete version). A slightly more general example is relaxing integer linear programming with linear programming which gives good approximate solutions in some cases (the normalized cut algorithm actually appears to be a special case of this). I actually just learned about this in my algorithms class where we went over an approximation algorithm for weighted vertex cover and weighted maxsat.

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