1 Introduction
In this paper we propose a simple method of unsupervised feature construction based on pairwise statistics of features. In the first step, we construct neighborhoods of features by regrouping features that correlate. Then we use these subsets of features as filters to produce new neighborhood features. Next, we connect neighborhood features that correlate, and construct edge features
by subtracting the correlated neighborhood features of each other. The method was motivated directly by the notion of lowlevel edge detector filters. These filters work well in practice, and they are ubiquitous in the first layer of both biological and artificial systems that learn on natural images. Indeed, the four simple feature construction steps are directly based on an abstract notion of Haar or Gabor filters: homogeneous, locally connected patches of contrasting intensities. In a more highlevel sense, the technique is also inspired by a, perhaps naive, notion of how natural neural networks work: in the first layer they pick up correlations in stimuli, and settle in a “simple” theory of the world. Next they pick up events when the correlations are broken, and assign a new units to the new “edge” features. Yet another direct motivation comes from
(Le Roux et al., 2007) where they show that pixel order can be recovered using only feature correlations. Once pixel order is recovered, one can immediately apply algorithms that explicitly use neighborhoodbased filters. From this point of view, in this paper we show that it is possible to go from pixel correlations to feature construction, without going through the explicit mapping of the pixel order.To validate the usefulness of the constructed features, we ran AdaBoost.MH (Schapire and Singer, 1999)
on multiclass classification problems. Boosting is one of the best “shallow” multiclass classifiers, especially when the goal is to combine simple classifiers that act on small subsets a large set of possibly useful features. Within multiclass boosting algorithms, AdaBoost.MH is the state of the art. On this statement we are at odds with recent results on multiclass boosting. On the two UCI data sets we use in this paper (and on others reported in
(Kégl and BusaFekete, 2009)), AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees and products (Benbouzid et al., 2012) clearly outperforms SAMME (Zhu et al., 2009), ABCBoost (Li, 2009), and most importantly, the implementation of AdaBoost.MH in (Zhu et al., 2009), suggesting that SAMME was compared to a suboptimal implementation of AdaBoost.MH in (Zhu et al., 2009).Our most significant result comes on the MNIST set where we achieve a test error of with an algorithm which is essentially free of any imagespecific priors (e.g., pixel order, preprocessing). On CIFAR10, our method is suboptimal compared to today’s best deep learning techniques, reproducing basically the results of the earliest attempts on the data set (Ranzato et al., 2010). The main point in these experiments is that the proposed method outperforms not only boosting on the raw pixels, but also boosting on Haar filters. We also tried the technique on two relatively large UCI data sets. The results here are essentially negative: the lack of correlations between the features do not allow us to improve significantly on “shallow” AdaBoost.
2 Constructing the representation
For the formal description of the method, let the training data, where
are the input vectors and
the labels. We will denote the input matrix and its elements by , and its raw feature (column) vectors by . The algorithm consists of the following steps.
We construct neighborhoods for each feature vector , that is, sets of features^{1}^{1}1In what follows, we use the word feature
for any realvalued representation of the input, so both the input of the featurebuilding algorithm and its ouput. It is an intended terminology to emphasize that the procedure can be applied recursively, as in stacked autoencoders.
that are correlated with . Formally, , whereis the correlation of two feature vectors and
is a hyperparameter of the algorithm.

We construct neighborhood features by using the neighborhoods as (normalized) filters, that is,
for all and .

We construct edges between neighborhoods by connecting correlated neighborhood features. Formally, , where is a hyperparameter of the algorithm. We will denote elements of the set of edges by , and the size of the set by .

We construct edge features by subtracting the responses to correlated neighborhoods of each other, that is, for all and .

We concatenate neighborhood and edge features into a new representation of , that is, for all .
2.1 Setting and
Both hyperparameters and threshold correlations, nevertheless, they have quite different roles: controls the neighborhood size whereas controls the distance of neighborhoods under which an edge (that is, a significantly different response or a “surprise”) is an interesting feature. In practice, we found that the results were rather insensitive to the value of these parameters in the interval. For now we manually set and in order to control the number of features. In our experiments we found that it was rarely detrimental to increase the number of features in terms of the asymptotic test error (w.r.t. the number of boosting iterations ) but the convergence of AdaBoost.MH slowed down if the number of features were larger than some thousands (either because each boosting iteration took too much time, or because we had to seriously subsample the features in each iteration, essentially generating random trees, and so the number of iterations exploded).
On images, where the dimensionality of the input space (number of pixels) is large, we subsample the pixels before constructing the neighborhoods to control the number of neighborhood features, again, for computational rather than statistical reasons. We simply run AdaBoost.MH with decision stumps in an autoassociative setup. A decision stump uses a single pixel as input and outputs a prediction on all the pixels. We take the first stumps that AdaBoost picks, and use the corresponding pixels (a subset of the full set of pixels) to construct the neighborhoods.
On smalldimensional (nonimage) sets we face the opposite problem: the small number of input features limit the number of neighborhoods. This actually highlights a limitation of the algorithm: when the number of input features is small and they are not very correlated, the number of generated neighborhood and edge features is small, and they essentially contain the same information as the original features. Nevertheless, we were curious whether we can see any improvement by blowing up the number of features (similarly, in spirit, to what support vector machines do). We obtain a larger number of neighborhoods by defining a
set of thresholds , and constructing “concentric” neighborhoods for each feature . On data sets with heterogeneous feature types it is also important to normalize the features by the usual transformation , where anddenote the mean and the standard deviation of the elements of
, respectively, before proceeding with the feature construction (Step 2).Optimally, of course, automatic hyperparameter optimization (Bergstra and Bengio, 2012; Bergstra et al., 2011; Snoek et al., 2012) is the way to go, especially since AdaBoost.MH also has two or three hyperparameters, and manual grid search in a fourtofive dimensional hyperparameter space is not feasible. For now, we set aside this issue for future work.
2.2 AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees
The constructed features can be input to any “shallow” classifier. Since we use AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees, we briefly describe them here. The full formal description with the pseudocode is in the documentation of MultiBoost (Benbouzid et al., 2012). It is available at the multiboost.org website along with the code itself.
The advantage of over other multiclass boosting approaches is that it does not require from the base learner to predict a single label for an input instance , rather, it uses vectorvalued base learners . The requirement for these base learners is weaker: it suffices if the edge is slightly larger than zero, where is the weight matrix (over instances and labels) in the current boosting iteration, and is a valued onehot code of the label. This makes it easy to turn weak binary classifiers into multiclass base classifiers, without requiring that the multiclass zeroone base error be less than . In case
is a decision tree, there are two important consequences. First, the size (the number of leaves
) of the tree can be arbitrary and can be tuned freely (whereas requiring a zeroone error to be less than usually implies large trees). Second, one can design trees with binary valued outputs, which could not be used as standalone multiclass classifiers.In a Hamming tree, at each node, the split is learned by a multiclass decision stump of the form , where is a (standard) scalar valued decision stump, and is a valued vector. At leaf nodes, the full valued vector is output for a given , whereas at inner nodes, only the binary function is used to decide whether the instance goes left or right. The tree is constructed topdown, and each node stump is optimized in a greedy manner, as usual. For a given , unless happens to be a onehot vector, no single class can be output (because of ties). At the same time, the tree is perfectly boostable: the weighted sum of Hamming trees produces a realvalued vector of length , of which the predicted class can be easily derived using the operator.
3 Experiments
We carried out experiments on four data sets: MNIST^{2}^{2}2http://yann.lecun.com/exdb/mnist and CIFAR10^{3}^{3}3http://www.cs.toronto.edu/~kriz/cifar.html are standard image classification data sets, and the Pendigit and Letter sets are relatively large benchmarks from the UCI repository^{4}^{4}4http://www.ics.uci.edu/~mlearn/MLRepository.html. We boosted Hamming trees (Benbouzid et al., 2012) on each data sets. Boosted Hamming trees have three hyperparameters: the number of boosting iterations , the number of leaves , and the number of (random) features considered at each split (LazyBoost (Escudero et al., 2000)
settings that give the flavor of a random forest to the final classifier). Out of these three, we validated only the number of leaves
in the ‘‘classical’’ way using single validation on the training set. Since AdaBoost.MH does not exhibit any overfitting even after a very large number of iterations (see Figure 1),^{5}^{5}5This is certainly the case in these four experiments, but in our experience, making AdaBoost.MH overfit is really hard unless significant label noise is present in the training set. we run it for a large number of iterations, and report the average test error of the last iterations. The number of (random) features considered at each split is another hyperparameter which does not have to be tuned in the traditional way. In our experience, the larger it is, the smaller the asymptotic test error is. On the other hand, the larger it is the slower the algorithm converges to this error. This means that controls the tradeoff between the accuracy of the final classifier and the training time. We tuned it to obtain the full learning curves in reasonable time.The neighborhood and edge features were constructed as described in Section 2
. Estimating correlations can be done robustly on relatively small random samples, so we ran the algorithm on a random input matrix
with instances.3.1 Mnist
MNIST consists of greyscale training images of handwritten digits of size . In all experiments on MNIST, was set to . The first baseline run was AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees of leaves on the raw pixels (green curve in Figure 1(a)), achieving a test error of . We also ran AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees of leaves in the roughly dimensional feature space generated by five types of Haar filters (Viola and Jones 2004; red curve in Figure 1(a)). This setup produced a test error of which is the state of the art among boosting algorithms. For generating neighborhood and edge features, we first ran autoassociative AdaBoost.MH with decision stumps for iterations that picked the pixels depicted by the white pixels in Figure 2(a). Then we constructed neighborhood features using and edge features using . The most important features (picked by running AdaBoost.MH with decision stumps) is depicted in Figure 3. Finally we ran AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees of leaves on the constructed features (blue curve in Figure 1(a)), achieving a test error of which is one of the best results among methods that do not use explicit image priors (pixel order, specific distortions, etc.).
Note that AdaBoost.MH picked slightly more neighborhood than edge features relatively to their prior proportions. On the other hand, it was crucial to include both neighborhood and edge features: AdaBoost.MH was way suboptimal on either subset.
3.2 Cifar
CIFAR10 consists of color training images of 10 object categories of size , giving a total of features. In all experiments on CIFAR, was set to . The first baseline run was AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees of leaves on the raw pixels (green curve in Figure 1(b)), achieving a test error of . We also ran AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees of leaves in the roughly dimensional feature space generated by five types of Haar filters (Viola and Jones 2004; red curve in Figure 1(b)). This setup produced a test error of . For generating neighborhood and edge features, we first ran autoassociative AdaBoost.MH with decision stumps for iterations that picked the color channels depicted by the white and colored pixels in Figure 2(b). Then we constructed neighborhood features using and edge features using . Finally we ran AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees of leaves on the constructed features (blue curve in Figure 1(a)), achieving a test error of .
None of these results are close to the sate of the art, but they are not completely off the map, either: they match the performance of one of the early techniques that reported error on CIFAR10 (Ranzato et al., 2010). The main significance of this experiment is that AdaBoost.MH with neighborhood and edge features can beat not only AdaBoost.MH on raw pixels but also AdaBoost.MH with Haar features.
3.3 UCI Pendigit and Letter
In principle, there is no reason why neighborhood and edge features could not work on nonimage sets. To investigate, we ran some preliminary tests on the relatively large UCI data sets, Pendigit and Letter. Both of them contain features and several thousand instances. The baseline results are on Pendigit using AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees of leaves (green curve in Figure 1(d)) and on Letter using AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees of leaves (green curve in Figure 1(c)). We constructed neighborhoods using a set of thresholds , giving us unique neighborhoods on Letter and unique neighborhoods on Pendigit (out of the possible ). We then proceeded by constructing edge features with , giving us more features on Letter, and more features on Letter. We then ran AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees of the same number of leaves as in the baseline experiments, using . On Pendigit, we obtained , better than in the baseline (blue curve in Figure 1(d)), while on Letter we obtained , significantly worse than in the baseline (blue curve in Figure 1(c)). We see two reasons why a larger gain is difficult on these sets. First, there is not much correlation between the features to exploit. Indeed, setting and to similar values to those we used on the image sets, neighborhoods would have been very small, and there would have been almost no edges. Second, AdaBoost.MH with Hamming trees is already a very good algorithm on these sets, so there is not much margin for improvement.
4 Future work
Besides running more experiments and tuning hyperparameters automatically, the most interesting question is whether stacking neighborhood and edge features would work. There is no technical problem of rerunning the feature construction on the features obtained in the first round, but it is not clear whether there is any more structure this simple method can exploit. We did some preliminary trials on MNIST where it did not improve the results, but this may be because MNIST is a relatively simple set with not very complex features and rather homogeneous classes. Experimenting with stacking on CIFAR is definitely the next step. Another interesting avenue is to launch a large scale exploration on more nonimage benchmark sets to see whether there is a subclass of sets where the correlationbased feature construction may work, and then to try to characterize this subclass.
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