The Nonscience of Machine Learning

29 Aug

In 2013, Girshick et al. released a paper that described a technique to solve an impossible-sounding problem—classifying each pixel of an image (or semantic segmentation). The technique that they proposed, R-CNN, combines deep learning, selective search, and SVM. It also has all sorts of ad hoc choices, from the size of the feature vector to the number of regions, that are justified by how well they work in practice. R-CNN is not unusual. Many machine learning papers are recipes that ‘work.’ There is a reason for that. Machine learning is an engineering discipline. It isn’t a scientific one. 

You may think that engineering must follow science, but often it is the other way round. For instance, we learned how to build things before we learned the science behind it—we trialed-and-errored and overengineered our way to many still standing buildings while the scientific understanding slowly accumulated. Similarly, we were able to predict the seasons and the phases of the moon before learning how our solar system worked. Our ability to solve problems with machine learning is similarly ahead of our ability to put it on a firm scientific basis.

Often, we build something based on some vague intuition, find that it ‘works,’ and only over time, deepen our intuition about why (and when) it works. Take, for instance, Dropout. The original paper (released in 2012, published in 2014) had the following as motivation:

A motivation for Dropout comes from a theory of the role of sex in evolution (Livnat et al., 2010). Sexual reproduction involves taking half the genes of one parent and half of the other, adding a very small amount of random mutation, and combining them to produce an offspring. The asexual alternative is to create an offspring with a slightly mutated copy of the parent’s genes. It seems plausible that asexual reproduction should be a better way to optimize individual fitness because a good set of genes that have come to work well together can be passed on directly to the offspring. On the other hand, sexual reproduction is likely to break up these co-adapted sets of genes, especially if these sets are large and, intuitively, this should decrease the fitness of organisms that have already evolved complicated coadaptations. However, sexual reproduction is the way most advanced organisms evolved. …

Srivastava et al. 2014, JMLR

Moreover, the paper provided no proof and only some empirical results. It took until Gal and Ghahramani’s 2016 paper (released in 2015) to put the method on a firmer scientific footing.

Then there are cases where we have made ad hoc choices that ‘work’ and where no one will ever come up with a convincing theory. Instead, progress will mean replacing bad advice with good. Take, for instance, the recommended step of ‘normalizing’ variables before doing k-means clustering or before doing regularized regression. The idea of normalization is simple enough: put each variable on the same scale. But it is also completely weird. Why should we put each variable on the same scale? Some variables are plausibly more substantively important than others and we ideally want to prorate by that.

What Can We Learn?

The first point is about teaching machine learning. Bricklaying is thought to be best taught via apprenticeship. And core scientific principles are thought to be best taught via books and lecturing. Machine learning is closer to the bricklaying end of the spectrum. First, there is a lot in machine learning that is ad hoc and beyond scientific or even good intuitive explanation and hence taught as something you do. Second, there is plausibly much to be learned in seeing how others trial-and-error and come up with kludges to fix the issues for which there is no guidance.

The second point is about the maturity of machine learning. Over the last few decades, we have been able to accomplish really cool things with machine learning. And these accomplishments detract us from how early we are. The fact is that we have been able to achieve cool things with very crude tools. For instance, OOS validation is a crude but very commonly used tool for preventing overfitting—we stop optimization when the OOS error starts increasing. As our scientific understanding deepens, we will likely invent better tools. The best of machine learning is a long way off. And that is exciting.