A Few Useful Things To Know About Machine Learning

This post contains the notes taken from reading of the following paper:

This paper does not introduce any novelties in the field of Machine Learning, nor some kinds of benchmarks, but rather offers a overview of the black art of Machine Learning. Domingos covers a wide area of Machine Learning, but each parts are not explored in depth.

The Right Algorithm

Domingos splits the problem of choosing the right algorithm in three sub-problems:

  • Finding the good representation (hyperplanes, rules, decision trees, etc.)
  • The objective function to optimize (accuracy, likelihood, cross-entropy, etc.)
  • The optimization method (quadratric, beam search, gradient descent, etc.)

The optimal combinations should be taken according to hyperparameters: The accuracy, the training time, the problem type, etc.

Evaluating The Algorithm

Domingos notes that while a high accuracy may seem good, it is not a sufficient indicator. A high score of accuracy on the train data may simply mean that the algorithm has an overfit problem, and thus generalize badly on new unseen data.

A common pitfall would be to train the algorithm on the train data and tweak the hyperparameters in order to maximize our score on the test data. This may lead to an overfit on also the test data!

The generalization problems (how can I estimate my generalization? and how can I improve my generalization) are detailed in the further sections.

The Bias-Variance Trade-off

When building a model it is interesting to decompose the generalization error into two components: the bias and the variance.

Bias is a learner’s tendency to consistently learn the same wrong thing.

Variance is the tendency to learn random things irrespective of the real signal.

Bias-Variance trade-off in dart-throwing

This trade-off explains why a powerful learner may not be better than a weak learner. If my powerful learner has a low bias, he is performing well on the train data. However if my powerful learner has also a high variance, it may have learned noise from the train data that would be irrelevant for the test data and behave randomly.

Reducing The Variance

There are several ways to reduce the variance:

Train, Validation, and Test

Before training your model, the data should be split in three parts:

  • Train: On which the model will learn.
  • Validation: On which we will optimize model’s performance by tweaking the parameters.
  • Test: To test the model, only at the end.

Train-Validation-Test split

In a certain way, we are overfitting on validation by tweaking the parameters according to the validation’s performance. In order to mitigate this we can use the cross-validation:


We are still training the model on train, and tweaking the parameters in order to optimize validation.

However instead of evaluating a fixed validation set, we are evaluating the average performance of the different folds:

k-fold cross-validations

Note that if there is too many parameters choices, the cross-validation may not be able to avoid overfitting.


Another way to way to avoid overfitting is to add regularization. It will force the model to be simpler.

Let’s say the model has a set of weights $W$, an evaluation function $f(X)$ (that depends of the weights), and a loss function $L(X, Y)$.

Without regularization the model will try to optimize:

$$L(X, f(X))$$

With a regularization $R(W)$:

$$L(X, f(X)) + \lambda R(W)$$

The regularization is multiplied by a factor $\lambda$ that is determined empirically, with cross-validation for example.

There are several regularizations possible. The two most common are L1 (also known as LASSO), and L2 (also known as Ridge):

L1 is the absolute norm:

$$\Vert W \Vert_1 = \Sigma_{i=1}^n |w_i|$$

While L2 is:

$$\Vert W \Vert_2 = \Sigma_{i=1}^{n} w_i^2$$

The Curse Of Dimensionality

In addition of overfitting, a model can also fail to learn high-dimensional data.

For example, let’s imagine that we want to use a decision tree to learn data which features are binary discrete values. If there are 10 features, it would mean that there is a thousand possible samples. If there are 100 features (which is common), there are a thousand billion of billion of billion possible samples. It is unlearnable, either because the model will never generalize correctly, or the model will take a non-practical amount of time to learn.

Thankfully, the data’s features are often not completely independent and many features are just noise. The blessing of non-uniformity as Domingos calls, implies the samples are often spread on a lower-dimensional manifold.

To reduce the dimension, i.e. choosing the right features, many algorithms exist: PCA, NMF, LDA, etc.

The reduction of dimensionality is an often necessary step before feeding the model with the data.

Feature Engineering Is The Key

Feature Engineering is the action of transforming raw data into something that is more learnable by the model. It is dependant on the data’s type, and here lies most of the black art of Machine Learning.

Two examples:

For text data, several processing are necessary: - tokenization to split the words of the sentence. - lemmatization to get the lemma (loved, loving, lover -> love) - POS-Tagging to get the grammar label of a token (be -> verb, car -> noun)

For image data, in the case of object detection we can extract interesting features with the HOG algorithm and feed these features to a SVM to improve significantly the performances.

While feature engineering is major part of Machine Learning, it is less important in Deep Learning: with Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) the model is learning by itself the convolution kernels extracting the interesting features.

Model Ensembles

In order to achieve the best performance we want to decrease both bias and variance. It is often complicated to optimize this trade-off. A great way to achieve this is to combine different models, kind of like a wisdom of the crowd.

There are three main categories of ensembles:


Used in the Random Forest, bagging generates plenty of model. Each has a low bias but a high variance. A voting system is set up between them to choose the output, thus lowering the individual variances.


Used in Adaboost or in Gradient Boosting, boosting generates at first a simple weak learner: It should just be a bit better than a random guess. At each iteration of the training, a new weak learner is added to the global learner. The new weak learner focuses on the previously poorly predicted data.

At each iteration the bias is reduced as the overall model improves. There is a diminished risk of overfitting with boosting: Because each iteration’s learner focuses on poorly predicted data, the risk of over-learning data is small.


The stacking ensemble is the easiest to understand: Each model is connected to another: The output of one is the input of another.

Data, Data, And Data

While Domingos offers us great insights into Machine Learning, and various methods to improve our models, he notes one constant:

More data beats a cleverer algorithm

It is often more advisable to focus the efforts on getting as much data as possible, and begin with a simple model, than to expect a complex model to generalize from few data.

Available Data

There are plenty of resources available:

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