Clustering is a fundamental topic to machine learning, which aims to group similar patterns into the same cluster and dissimilar patterns into different clusters. During past decades, a variety of clustering methods 
have been proposed and achieved huge success in various applications. In recent, the major focus of the community is paid on handling high-dimensional data whose key is addressing the linear inseparable issue.
To effectively clustering high-dimensional data, a variety of methods have been proposed, e.g.spectral clustering [2, 3], kernel clustering , convex clustering , subspace clustering [6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12]
, and recent popular deep learning based clustering[13, 14, 15, 16]. The commonality of most of them is employing a shallow or deep model to learn a representation and then applying a traditional clustering approach (generally k-means) to obtain data partition.
Despite the success of these clustering methods, they have suffered from some limitations as below. They usually focus on representation learning while ignoring the clustering. In the era of deep learning, it is highly desirable to pay more attention to developing new clustering algorithm since deep neural networks have shown promising performance in learning representation. Furthermore, although shallow methods are with high interpretability since almost all of them are statistical models, they may be incapable to handle complex data due to the limited representative capacity. In contrast, although deep learning based method could be better to capture the highly nonlinear structure hidden into data, they are well known as a “black box”. In other words, the state-of-the-art clustering neural networks always lack interpretability, which makes difficulty in performance tuning and understanding its working manner. Moreover, an interpretable clustering neural network will facilitate representation learning in an end-to-end manner.
Motivated by the above observations, this paper proposes a novel neural network (see Fig. 1) from the prospective of differentiable programming (DP) [17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23]. The proposed k-meansNet is with a novel reformulated objective function of the vanilla k-means clustering, which enjoys following advantages. First, the proposed k-meansNet is a neural network but with explicit interpretability. In addition, it could also be regarded as a convex version of k-means with easier optimization by SGD. Second, our method is provable to monotonically decreasing in the loss under some mild conditions. Third, k-means iteratively optimizes the cluster centers and the label assignment with two separate steps, which leads to the incapability of handling new coming data and inferior performance. In contrast, the proposed k-meansNet simultaneously learns a set of cluster centers and the label assignments, which could enjoy the capability of handling new data and joint optimization of clustering centers and assignment. Fourth, we experimentally show that k-meansNet is robust to different initialization approaches that are highly desired by k-means.
The contribution of this work is twofold. One the one hand, from the view of clustering, we reformulate k-means as a neural network with a novel objective function. The proposed k-meansNet could overcome the drawbacks of k-means and neural networks, while enjoying their advantages, i.e. robustness to initialization, the capability of handling new coming data, provable convergence, and interpretable neural processing mechanism. On the other hand, to the best of our knowledge, this could be one of the first attempts to make clustering beneficial from differentiable programming. More specifically, k-meansNet could perform data clustering, whereas most existing DP works only focus on solving an optimization problem using a neural network. Furthermore, our method is a feedforward neural network (FNN), whereas the models obtained by most existing DP works are recurrent neural networks. Therefore, we believe that this work could be helpful to the community.
2 Related Works
This work closely relates to clustering, differentiable programming, and interpretability in neural network which are briefly introduced in this section.
As one of most effective data clustering methods, either of shallow and deep subspace clustering approach computes a so-called self-expression for a given dataset and then applies k-means to the representation derived from .
The main difference among these existing methods lies on the constraint on . In practice, there are several popular forms, namely, -norm , -norm [6, 10], -norm [9, 25], nuclear-norm , and their variants [11, 26, 27]. By deeply utilizing , [15, 16] show that the representation learned by neural network could boost k-means performance.
Different from these existing works, we aim to develop a novel neural network to achieve clustering rather than representation learning. More specifically, we recast k-means as a neural network, which enjoys the merits of k-means and deep learning.
2.2 Differentiable Programming
Differentiable programming (DP) is an emerging and impactful topic, that bridges classical machine learning model and deep neural networks, by emphasizing problem-specific prior and interpretability. DP advocates to build complicated end-to-end machine learning pipeline, by assembling parameterized functional blocks, that are later jointly trained from examples, using some form of differential calculus–most often stochastic gradient descent (SGD). It bears resemblances to building a software, except that it is parameterized, automatically differentiated, and trainable/optimizable.
To the best of our knowledge, Learned ISTA (LISTA)  could be the first well-known DP work in the era of deep learning, which unfolds the ISTA algorithm  – a popular -optimizer, as a simple RNN. In the unrolled RNN, the number of layers and the weight correspond to the iteration number and the dictionary, respectively. Inspired by the success of LISTA, numerous methods are proposed to address a variety of problems, e.g. image restoration , audio processing , segmentation , hashing , and clustering .
As discussed in Introduction, this work is remarkably different from most existing differentiable programming approaches in either of network structure (FNN vs. RNN) and applications (clustering vs. optimization), which may serve as a novel angle to facilitate future DP works.
2.3 Interpretability in Neural Network
Generic deep architectures, as often referred to as “black-box” methods, rely on stacking somewhat ad-hoc modules, which makes it prohibitive to interpret their working mechanisms. Despite a few hypotheses and intuitions, it appears difficult to understand why deep models work, how to analyze them, and how they are related to classical machine learning models.
To solve the aforementioned problem, a variety of works [32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37] have devoted towards the interpretability in neural network, which usually employ visualization techniques to disentangle the outputs of neural network.
Different from these works, the proposed k-meansNet is interpretable in structure which is largely ignored by previous studies. In other words, one could explicitly understand why the structure of the k-meansNet is presented as itself, the physical meaning of each unit of the model, as well as why it is able to perform data clustering. Moreover, we do not attempt to interpret an existing neural network like these works did. Instead, we directly develop a novel interpretable neural network.
3 Interpretable Neural Network for k-means Clustering
In this section, we first show how to reformulate k-means as a neural network and then conduct convergence analysis on the proposed k-meansNet followed by the discussions on interpretability.
For a given dataset , k-means aims to partition it into different sets by minimizing the distance of the within-cluster data points. In mathematical,
where denotes the -th cluster center which is computed as the mean of points in , i.e.
where denotes the number of data points in the -th cluster.
To solve Eq.(1), an EM-like optimization is adopted by updating or and simultaneously fixing the other one. Such an iterative optimization has several drawbacks. First, the method is sensitive to the initialization, which may achieve an inferior result for a given bad initialized . In fact, to obtain a stable solution, over-thousands of works have been conducted, including the popular k-means++ . Second, it is an NP-hard problem to finding the optimal solution to k-means in either of general Euclidean space even for bi-cluster and the plane for a general number of . To solve the NP-hard problem, some variants of k-means are proposed, such as various parametric k-means including Fuzzy c-means [39, 40]. Third, k-means cannot handle the new coming data, which requires the whole dataset is observed.
To overcome these disadvantages, we recast k-means as a novel neural network with a convex objective from the prospective of DP. To the end, we first rewrite Eq.(1) by:
where indicates the cluster membership of w.r.t. and only one entry of is nonzero. In the following, we will alternatively use to denote for simplicity.
The binary constraint on will lead to a NP-hard problem as the aforementioned. Hence, we relax such a constraint and define
as a probability map based on the distance betweenand , i.e.
where is the normalization factor. Note that, here we adopt the softmax function. However, other activation functions could also be used as long as is normalized into the range of . It is worthy to point out that replacing the hard indicator of k-means with the softmax function is not the key contribution of our idea. Instead, the major novelty of this work is recasting k-means as a neural network via the following reformulation,
Let , , and , the objective function of k-meansNet is formulated as below:
where is a scalar which denotes the -th entry of and denotes the -th cluster center. Note that, could be dropped out from Eqn.(7), which will not affect the network training. is cancelled out in numerator and denominator of Eqn.(7). Furthermore, could be regarded as a parametric attention learned from data as elaborated later.
It should be pointed out that, and will be decoupled during training to favor an additional free degree and avoiding trivial solutions. In other words, after initialization with , and are updated independently and the final cluster centers is recovered via . To show the necessity of decoupling and , similar to the above reformulation process, we rewrite Eqn.(6) as
where . Thus, we have
where . The inequality constraint is obtained since must be upper bounded as proved in Section 3.3.
Eqn.(3.1) is exact Eqn.(4), namely, without decoupling and . Since obtains its optimum at the boundary with and when , there exists such that and obtains its optimal value. We can always find a and such that , however, we cannot always find a and such that . In other words, we have to decouple and during training to avoid the trivial solution and speed up the convergence.
3.2 Interpreting Clustering In Neural Processing
The proposed objective function (Eqn.(6–7)) corresponds to a feedforward neural network as demonstrated in Fig. 1. One major attractive of the obtained neural network is that clustering could be explained in neural processing. In other words, we could understand not only why the network structure is built as itself but also why such a network could perform data clustering.
In addition, we could also understand the working manner of
-meansNet from the standpoint of attention mechanism that is popular in natural language processing[41, 42]. As shown in Fig. 2, k-meansNet aims to learn a linear hyperplane (upper pathway) which is spanned by a set of cluster centers . The hyperplane is able to partition similar data points into the same cluster and dissimilar data points into different clusters via attention. More specifically, to learn the hyperplane, k-meansNet first computes the similarity between the input and the cluster centers using inner product and passes the similarity through an adaptive hinge loss function to obtain the corresponding dissimilarity . After that, the loss of k-meansNet is computed by summing the weighted using . Intuitively, this implements a mechanism of attention in the lower pathway which decides the cluster centers to pay attention to. Meanwhile, the attention actually serves as the clustering label.
3.3 Convergence Proofs
In this section, we theoretically show that the loss given by our k-meansNet will sufficiently converge to the optimizers.
Without loss of generality, the bias could be enveloped into the weight via and . For ease of presentation, let denote the smallest loss, and be the smallest loss found at the -step so far. Similarly, denotes the desirable weight of which the first columns are the optimal cluster centers . We consider the standard SGD to optimize our network, i.e.
where denotes the gradient of w.r.t. . In the following, we will alternatively use and without causing confusion.
Definition 1 (Lipschitz Continuity).
A function is a Lipschitz continuous function on the set , if there exists a constant , such that
where is termed as the Lipschitz constant.
Clearly, our objective function is a Lipschitz continuous function i.i.f. . In other words, to utilize the Lipschitz Continuity, we need to prove the existence of upper boundary of .
There exists such that , where and .
Without loss of generality, Eqn.(6) could be rewritten in the form of
Let , we have
As , we could further have
Clearly our objective function will be upper bounded by a positive real number when is bounded (see Fig. 3 for an illustrative example). In fact, there exists the upper boundary of for informative dataset. More specifically, without loss of generality, one could enforce and thus induced by , where denotes the size of the -th cluster. ∎
Theorem 1 tells us that the proposed objective function will be upper bounded by a positive real number when is bounded. In fact, there exists the upper boundary of for any real-world dataset that carries information. Furthermore, without loss of generality, one could normalize by and thus induced by , where denotes the size of the -th cluster.
One could always find an optimal model which is sufficiently close to the desired after steps, i.e.
Let be the minimizer to our objective function (i.e. Eqn.(6)), then
where denotes the trace of a matrix.
Applying the above Equation recursively, it gives that
As satisfies the Lipschitz Continuity and according to the definition of gradient, i.e.
where is the best found within steps so far.
Based on Theorem 2, the following two lemmas could be derived.
For the fixed step size (i.e. ) and ,
After steps, we have
as desired. ∎
For the fixed step length (i.e. ) and ,
Similar to the proof for Lemma 1. ∎
4 Experimental Results
In this section, we carry out experiments to verify the effectiveness of the proposed k-meansNet comparing with 12 state-of-the-art clustering approaches.
4.1 Experimental Settings
We conduct experiments on a Nvidia K40 GPU, an Intel Xeon CPU 2.40GHz, and a 64GB memory. For all the tested baselines, we use the source code released by respective authors. Regarding our method, we implement it in TensorFlow.
Baselines: We compare our method with 1) popular subspace clustering approaches including spectral clustering (SC) , LRR , and LSR ; 2) large-scale clustering methods including Scalable LRR (SLRR)  and large-scale spectral clustering (LSC) ; 3) matrix decomposition based method and agglomerative clustering, i.e. NMF  and Zeta function based agglomerative clustering (ZAC) ; and 4) state-of-the-art deep embedding clustering (DEC) . Moreover, we also use the vanilla k-means and FCM  as baselines. Note that, either of LSR and LSC has two variants, which are denoted by LSR1, LSR2, LSC-R, and LSC-K.
In experiments, we employ a denoising auto-encoder  to extract low-dimensional features for all the investigated clustering approaches. To be specific, as did in DEC , the auto-encoder consists of an encoder with the fully connected layers (FCL) of m-(500)-(500)-(2000)-(10) and a decoder with the fully connected layers of (2000)-(500)-(500)-(m), where in () represents fully connected layer with
number of neurons andis the input dimension. We adopt the ReLu as the activation function for all layers except the last one of encoder and decoder which is with the sigmoid function. To alleviate the overfitting, a dropout layer with the rate of 0.2 is added after each layer of the encoder. The adadelta  optimizer is used to train the neural networks including the auto-encoder and k
-meansNet. Either of the max training epoch and convergence error is satisfied, the neural network is regarded as convergent. In all experiments, these two parameters are fixed to 3000 and. Furthermore, for fair comparisons, we tune parameters for all tested methods and report their best performance. For the baselines, we follow the parameter tuning method suggested in the original work. For our method, we only tune ranged into , where increases from to
. Note that, some other recent deep features extractors[13, 50] could also be used to improve the performance of k-meansNet. However, our experimental result will show that with the simple auto-encoder our method could perform competitive with these well-established networks.
Datasets: Our method is evaluated using following datasets, including the mnist handwritten digital full database , the CIFAR10 image full database , and the CIFAR100 full database . For CIFAR100, we adopt superclass partitions. In other words, we conduct experiments on 20 supersets of CIFAR100 and report the mean, the median, and the maximum of result over these subsets. No preprocessing steps are conducted expected normalizing each data point to have a unit 1 of -norm.
Evaluation Metrics: Three metrics are used to evaluate the clustering performance, i.e. Accuracy or called Purity, normalized mutual information (NMI), and adjusted rand index (ARI). A higher value of these metrics indicates better clustering performance.
4.2 Experimental Comparisons
In this section, we examine the performance of k-meansNet on three challenging datasets. As all tested methods excepted ZAC directly/indirectly involve initialization of cluster centers, we adopt k-means++ as the initializer for fair comparisons. For our method, k-means++ first initialize which is further used to compute .
The mnist consists of 70,000 images distributed over 10 handwritten digits and each image is with the size of . The CIFAR10 dataset consists of 60,000 images sampled from 10 classes and each image is with the size of . Table I demonstrates the results of the evaluated approaches on these two datasets. One could observe that k-meansNet is superior to all baselines in terms of three metrics and DEC achieves the second best result. For example, our method outperforms the second best approach 4.11%, 5.10%, and 6.61% on mnist w.r.t. Accuracy, NMI, and ARI thanks to the new reformulation and neural network based implementation. Note that, LRR and SLRR show inferior performance in experiments, and the possible reason is that these datasets do not satisfy the low-rank assumption well. In the following section, we will show that k-meansNet will further improve the state of the art if other feature extractors such as CNN are used.
Like CIFAR-10, the CIFAR100 dataset also includes 60,000 images. The difference between them is that CIFAR100 includes 100 subjects which could be further grouped into 20 superclasses each of which consists of 3000 samples. Noted that, CIFAR10 and CIFAR100 are more challenging than the mnist dataset, which are less investigated in prior clustering works.
Tables II–III show the clustering result of our method on 20 subsets of CIFAR100. Again, the proposed k-meansNet shows promising results on the datasets, which is 1.88% and 1.85% at least higher than the other methods in terms of mean Accuracy on the first and last 10 subsets. Comparing with the recently proposed DEC, our method earns a performance gain of 3.79% and 4.98% on the first and last 10 subsets, respectively. Moreover, k-meansNet remarkably outperforms k-means and FCM by a considerable margin in mean Accuracy. More specifically, the gains over k-means are 2.05% and 1.87%, and that over FCM are 6.07% and 4.31%.
4.3 Influence of Parameters
In this section, we investigate the influence of the parameter on the mnist dataset. In experiment, we increase the value of from to as shown in Fig. 5. From the result, one could find that the proposed k-meansNet achieves stable clustering result in general. The Accuracy, NMI, and ARI usually change around 85%, 77%, and 75%.
4.4 Influence of Initializations, Features, and Optimizers
As discussed in Introduction, the center-based clustering method is sensitive to the initial clustering centers. In this section, we examine the influence of three different initialization methods, namely, k-means++, k
-means, and random method. Besides the performance with fully connected auto-encoder as aforementioned, we also investigate the performance of our method by collaborating with a convolutional auto-encoder. More specifically, the used convolutional encoder is a six-layer network which is with conv(64,5)-pool(2)-conv(32,5)-pool(2)-FCL(1024)-FCL(10), where “conv (64,5)” denotes a convolutional layer with the filter size of 64 and the kernel size of 5, “pool(5)” denotes max-pooling operation with the kernel size of 2, and “FCL(1024)” is a fully connected layer with 1024 neurons. The decoder is symmetric to the encoder. Similar to fully connected auto-encoder,ReLu is used as the activation function for all layers except the last one of encoder and decoder which adopts the sigmoid function. The experiments are conducted on mnist and k-means is used as the baseline. Furthermore, of k-meansNet is fixed to for the convolutional case and for fully connected case.
From Table V, we have following observations. First, the proposed k-meansNet is robust to the choice of initialization method. In the case of FCN, it almost keeps unchanged. For CNN, the difference between the maximal and minimal Accuracy is about 2%, and this gaps in NMI and ARI are 1.7% and 2.98%. Second, our method benefits much more from CNN than k-means. For example, our method improves the Accuracy by 3.46% versus 1.66% given by k-means.
Besides the above investigation on different initializations and features, we also consider the role of the used optimization approaches. In our experiments, we carry out experiments on the mnist dataset with the aforementioned CNN network and emply four popular SGD variants, namely, adadelta , adagrad , adam , and RMSprop , to train k-meansNet. In the evaluation, we adopt the default setting for these optimizers and experimentally set to for adadelta and adam, and to for adagrad and RMSprop. For a more comprehensive study, we further adopt four metrics for evaluating the clustering quality, i.e. adjusted mutual index (AMI), Homogeneity, Completeness, and v_measure. Noticed that, Accuracy, AMI, ARI, and AMI are external metrics which are computed based on the ground-truth, whereas Homogeneity, Completeness, and v_measure are internal metrics which measure the compactness/scatterness of within-/between-clusters. From TABLE IV, it is easy to observe that AdaDelta and Adam achieve the best performance in terms the used metrics, and Adagrad performs the worst. Such a result is consistent with the experimental results of prior works.
4.5 Convergence Analysis in Experiments
In Section 3.2, we have theoretically shown that our method will sufficiently approximate to the global optimum under some mild conditions. In this Section, we conduct experiments on the mnist dataset to verify our theoretical result. In Fig. 4
, we report the clustering results and the loss value of our method with the fully connected neural network and the convolutional neural network which are presented in Section 4.4. From the result, ones could observe thatk-meansNet achieves convergence after 1700 epochs in terms of Accuracy, NMI, ARI, and the loss value. Considering the difference in k-meansNet with FCN and with CNN, the former gives slightly changed results after 1650 epochs, whereas the latter keeps stability after 1550. For example, the Accuracy of k-meansNet with FCN ranges from to after 1650 epochs, and the range of k-meansNet with CNN is after 1550 epochs.
In this paper, we proposed an interpretable neural network which is derived from the vanilla k-means clustering algorithm from the prospective of differentiable programming. Besides proposing a clustering neural network to overcome some disadvantages of k-means, we contribute to differentiable programming in following two aspects. On the one hand, existing works in differentiable programming employ neural networks as an alternative optimization method, whereas we use neural networks to perform data clustering. On the other hand, the pioneer works in differentiable programming obtained a recurrent neural network, whereas our obtain a feedforward neural network. Moreover, we bridge the attention mechanism with our method to understand its working manner.
The authors would like to thank the handling Editors and anonymous reviewers for their future valuable comments and constructive suggestions, and also thank Huan Li and Prof. Zhouchen Lin to provide helps and insights in theoretical analysis, especially the analysis on decoupling on and .
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