The Everything Ensemble Edge

Rich Caruana, Alexandru Niculescu, Geoff Crew, and Alex Ksikes have done a lot of empirical testing which shows that using all methods to make a prediction is more powerful than using any single method. This is in rough agreement with the Bayesian way of solving problems, but based upon a different (essentially empirical) motivation. A rough summary is:

  1. Take all of {decision trees, boosted decision trees, bagged decision trees, boosted decision stumps, K nearest neighbors, neural networks, SVM} with all reasonable parameter settings.
  2. Run the methods on each problem of 8 problems with a large test set, calibrating margins using either sigmoid fitting or isotonic regression.
  3. For each loss of {accuracy, area under the ROC curve, cross entropy, squared error, etc…} evaluate the average performance of the method.

A series of conclusions can be drawn from the observations.

  1. (Calibrated) boosted decision trees appear to perform best, in general although support vector machines and neural networks give credible near-best performance.
  2. The metalearning algorithm which simply chooses the best (based upon a small validation set) performs much better.
  3. A metalearning algorithm which combines the predictors in an ensemble using stepwise refinement of validation set performance appears to perform even better.

There are a number of caveats to this work: it was only applied on large datasets there is no guarantee that the datasets are representative of your problem (although efforts were made to be representative in general), and the size of the training set was fixed rather than using the natural size given by the problem. Despite all these caveats, the story told above seems compelling: if you want maximum performance, you must try many methods and somehow combine them.

The most significant drawback of this method is computational complexity. Techniques for reducing the computational complexity are therefore of significant interest. It seems plausible that there exists some learning algorithm which typically performs well whenever any of the above algorithms can perform well at a computational cost which is significantly less than “run all algorithm on all settings and test”.

A fundamental unanswered question here is “why?” in several forms. Why have the best efforts of many machine learning algorithm designers failed to capture all the potential predictive strength into a single coherent learning algorithm? Why do ensembles give such a significant consistent edge in practice? A great many papers follow the scheme: invent a new way to create ensembles, test, observe that it improves prediction performance at the cost of more computation, and publish. There are several pieces of theory explain individual ensemble methods, but we seem to have no convincing theoretical statement explaining why they almost always work.