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6 Ways to Optimize Your Database for Performance

Knowing how to optimize your organization’s database for maximum performance can lead to greater efficiency, productivity, and user satisfaction. While it may seem challenging at first, there are a few easy performance tuning tips that you can get started with.

1. Use Indexing

Indexing is one of the core ways to give databases a performance boost. There are different ways of approaching indexing, but they all have the same goal: decreasing query wait time by making it easier to find and access data.

Indexes have a search key attached to a value or data reference. The index file will direct a query to a record, “bucket” of data, or group of data, depending on the indexing method used. Choosing a good indexing method for your specific needs will reduce strain on your system by making it much easier for data to be located, since a uniform, systematic organization is applied to the entire database.

2. Avoid Using Loops

Many coders learn early on that loops can be both useful and dangerous. It is all too easy to accidentally create an infinite loop and crash your whole system.

Loops are problematic when it comes to database performance because they often are looping redundantly. That is not to say that loops should never be used; they are useful sometimes. It simply depends on the specific case, and removing or minimizing unnecessary loops will help increase performance.

For example, having SQL queries inside of loops is not generally advised, because the system is running the same query numerous times rather than just once. A good rule of thumb is that the more data you have in a loop, the slower it is going to be.

3. Get a Stronger CPU

This fix is a classic in computer science. A CPU with better specs will increase system performance. There are ways, like those above, to increase performance within your system’s organization and coding. However, if you find that your database is consistently struggling to keep up, your hardware might be in need of an upgrade.

Even if the CPU you have seems like it should be sufficient, a CPU that is more powerful than your minimum requirements will be able to handle waves of queries with ease. The more data you are working with and the more queries you need to manage, the stronger your CPU needs to be.

4. Defragment Data

Data defragmentation is a common solution for performance issues. When data gets accessed, written, and rewritten many times, it can get fragmented from all that copying. It is good practice to go in and clean things up on a regular basis.

One symptom of fragmented data is clogged memory, where tables are taking up more room than they should. Crammed memory, as discussed below, is another common cause of a low-performing database.

5. Optimize Queries

There are many ways to go about optimizing queries, depending on the indexing method and the specific needs of your database. When queries aren’t being handled efficiently, the whole system can get backed up, leading to longer wait times for query results. Causes may include duplicate or overlapping indexes and keys or queries that return data that isn’t relevant.

Optimizing queries can be a complex process, but there are some easy steps you can take to work out the best plan for your database and identify its specific inefficiencies.

6. Optimize Memory

Another hardware fix that may help under-performing databases is additional memory space. Databases need some memory “wiggle room” to operate quickly. When your memory is nearly or completely full, things get backed up while the system struggles to find room for creating temporary files and moving things around. It’s a bit like trying to reorganize a living room that is packed floor-to-ceiling with boxes. You need plenty of empty floor space to maneuver and shuffle things around.

Databases work the same way. Increasing your database’s memory capacity will allow it more flexibility and operating room, reducing stress on the system so it can run more efficiently.

Keep It Simple

Many of the tips above focus on simplifying and cleaning up your database. Keep your coding as straightforward and easy-to-navigate as possible. Databases are all about accessing information, so your main priority should simply be to have a well-organized system. Keeping these tips in mind will help you do just that and get your database running at top-notch performance!

CAP Theorem

Understanding databases for storing, updating and analyzing data requires the understanding of the CAP Theorem. This is the second article of the article series Data Warehousing Basics.

Understanding NoSQL Databases by the CAP Theorem

CAP theorem – or Brewer’s theorem – was introduced by the computer scientist Eric Brewer at Symposium on Principles of Distributed computing in 2000. The CAP stands for Consistency, Availability and Partition tolerance.

  • Consistency: Every read receives the most recent writes or an error. Once a client writes a value to any server and gets a response, it is expected to get afresh and valid value back from any server or node of the database cluster it reads from.
    Be aware that the definition of consistency for CAP means something different than to ACID (relational consistency).
  • Availability: The database is not allowed to be unavailable because it is busy with requests. Every request received by a non-failing node in the system must result in a response. Whether you want to read or write you will get some response back. If the server has not crashed, it is not allowed to ignore the client’s requests.
  • Partition tolerance: Databases which store big data will use a cluster of nodes that distribute the connections evenly over the whole cluster. If this system has partition tolerance, it will continue to operate despite a number of messages being delayed or even lost by the network between the cluster nodes.

CAP theorem applies the logic that  for a distributed system it is only possible to simultaneously provide  two out of the above three guarantees. Eric Brewer, the father of the CAP theorem, proved that we are limited to two of three characteristics, “by explicitly handling partitions, designers can optimize consistency and availability, thereby achieving some trade-off of all three.” (Brewer, E., 2012).

CAP Theorem Triangle

To recap, with the CAP theorem in relation to Big Data distributed solutions (such as NoSQL databases), it is important to reiterate the fact, that in such distributed systems it is not possible to guarantee all three characteristics (Availability, Consistency, and Partition Tolerance) at the same time.

Database systems designed to fulfill traditional ACID guarantees like relational database (management) systems (RDBMS) choose consistency over availability, whereas NoSQL databases are mostly systems designed referring to the BASE philosophy which prefer availability over consistency.

The CAP Theorem in the real world

Lets look at some examples to understand the CAP Theorem further and provewe cannot create database systems which are being consistent, partition tolerant as well as always available simultaniously.

AP – Availability + Partition Tolerance

If we have achieved Availability (our databases will always respond to our requests) as well as Partition Tolerance (all nodes of the database will work even if they cannot communicate), it will immediately mean that we cannot provide Consistency as all nodes will go out of sync as soon as we write new information to one of the nodes. The nodes will continue to accept the database transactions each separately, but they cannot transfer the transaction between each other keeping them in synchronization. We therefore cannot fully guarantee the system consistency. When the partition is resolved, the AP databases typically resync the nodes to repair all inconsistencies in the system.

A well-known real world example of an AP system is the Domain Name System (DNS). This central network component is responsible for resolving domain names into IP addresses and focuses on the two properties of availability and failure tolerance. Thanks to the large number of servers, the system is available almost without exception. If a single DNS server fails,another one takes over. According to the CAP theorem, DNS is not consistent: If a DNS entry is changed, e.g. when a new domain has been registered or deleted, it can take a few days before this change is passed on to the entire system hierarchy and can be seen by all clients.

CA – Consistency + Availability

Guarantee of full Consistency and Availability is practically impossible to achieve in a system which distributes data over several nodes. We can have databases over more than one node online and available, and we keep the data consistent between these nodes, but the nature of computer networks (LAN, WAN) is that the connection can get interrupted, meaning we cannot guarantee the Partition Tolerance and therefor not the reliability of having the whole database service online at all times.

Database management systems based on the relational database models (RDBMS) are a good example of CA systems. These database systems are primarily characterized by a high level of consistency and strive for the highest possible availability. In case of doubt, however, availability can decrease in favor of consistency. Reliability by distributing data over partitions in order to make data reachable in any case – even if computer or network failure – meanwhile plays a subordinate role.

CP – Consistency + Partition Tolerance

If the Consistency of data is given – which means that the data between two or more nodes always contain the up-to-date information – and Partition Tolerance is given as well – which means that we are avoiding any desynchronization of our data between all nodes, then we will lose Availability as soon as only one a partition occurs between any two nodes In most distributed systems, high availability is one of the most important properties, which is why CP systems tend to be a rarity in practice. These systems prove their worth particularly in the financial sector: banking applications that must reliably debit and transfer amounts of money on the account side are dependent on consistency and reliability by consistent redundancies to always be able to rule out incorrect postings – even in the event of disruptions in the data traffic. If consistency and reliability is not guaranteed, the system might be unavailable for the users.

CAP Theorem Venn Diagram

Conclusion

The CAP Theorem is still an important topic to understand for data engineers and data scientists, but many modern databases enable us to switch between the possibilities within the CAP Theorem. For example, the Cosmos DB von Microsoft Azure offers many granular options to switch between the consistency, availability and partition tolerance . A common misunderstanding of the CAP theorem that it´s none-absoluteness: “All three properties are more continuous than binary. Availability is continuous from 0 to 100 percent, there are many levels of consistency, and even partitions have nuances. Exploring these nuances requires pushing the traditional way of dealing with partitions, which is the fundamental challenge. Because partitions are rare, CAP should allow perfect C and A most of the time, but when partitions are present or perceived, a strategy is in order.” (Brewer, E., 2012).

Graphical understanding of dynamic programming and the Bellman equation: taking a typical approach at first

This is the second article of the series My elaborate study notes on reinforcement learning.

1, Before getting down on business

As the title of this article suggests, this article is going to be mainly about the Bellman equation and dynamic programming (DP), which are to be honest very typical and ordinary topics. One typical way of explaining DP in contexts of reinforcement learning (RL) would be explaining the Bellman equation, value iteration, and policy iteration, in this order. If you would like to merely follow pseudocode of them and implement them, to be honest that is not a big deal. However even though I have studied RL only for some weeks, I got a feeling that these algorithms, especially policy iteration are more than just single algorithms. In order not to miss the points of DP, rather than typically explaining value iteration and policy iteration, I would like to take a different approach. Eventually I am going to introduce DP in RL as a combination of the following key terms: the Bellman operator, the fixed point of a policy, policy evaluation, policy improvement, and existence of the optimal policy. But first, in this article I would like to cover basic and typical topics of DP in RL.

Many machine learning algorithms which use supervised/unsupervised learning more or less share the same ideas. You design a model and a loss function and input samples from data, and you adjust parameters of the model so that the loss function decreases. And you usually use optimization techniques like stochastic gradient descent (SGD) or ones derived from SGD. Actually feature engineering is needed to extract more meaningful information from raw data. Or especially in this third AI boom, the models are getting more and more complex, and I would say the efforts of feature engineering was just replaced by those of designing neural networks. But still, once you have the whole picture of supervised/unsupervised learning, you would soon realize other various algorithms is just a matter of replacing each component of the workflow. However reinforcement learning has been another framework of training machine learning models. Richard E. Bellman’s research on DP in 1950s is said to have laid a foundation for RL. RL also showed great progress thanks to development of deep neural networks (DNN), but still you have to keep it in mind that RL and supervised/unsupervised learning are basically different frameworks. DNN are just introduced in RL frameworks to enable richer expression of each component of RL. And especially when RL is executed in a higher level environment, for example screens of video games or phases of board games, DNN are needed to process each state of the environment. Thus first of all I think it is urgent to see ideas unique to RL in order to effectively learn RL. In the last article I said RL is an algorithm to enable planning by trial and error in an environment, when the model of the environment is not known. And DP is a major way of solving planning problems. But in this article and the next article, I am mainly going to focus on a different aspect of RL: interactions of policies and values.

According to a famous Japanese textbook on RL named “Machine Learning Professional Series: Reinforcement Learning,” most study materials on RL lack explanations on mathematical foundations of RL, including the book by Sutton and Barto. That is why many people who have studied machine learning often find it hard to get RL formulations at the beginning. The book also points out that you need to refer to other bulky books on Markov decision process or dynamic programming to really understand the core ideas behind algorithms introduced in RL textbooks. And I got an impression most of study materials on RL get away with the important ideas on DP with only introducing value iteration and policy iteration algorithms. But my opinion is we should pay more attention on policy iteration. And actually important RL algorithms like Q learning, SARSA, or actor critic methods show some analogies to policy iteration. Also the book by Sutton and Barto also briefly mentions “Almost all reinforcement learning methods are well described as GPI (generalized policy iteration). That is, all have identifiable policies and value functions, with the policy always being improved with respect to the value function and the value function always being driven toward the value function for the policy, as suggested by the diagram to the right side.

Even though I arrogantly, as a beginner in this field, emphasized “simplicity” of RL in the last article, in this article I am conversely going to emphasize the “profoundness” of DP over two articles. But I do not want to cover all the exhaustive mathematical derivations for dynamic programming, which would let many readers feel reluctant to study RL. I tried as hard as possible to visualize the ideas in DP in simple and intuitive ways, as far as I could understand. And as the title of this article series shows, this article is also a study note for me. Any corrections or advice would be appreciated via email or comment pots below.

2, Taking a look at what DP is like

In the last article, I said that planning or RL is a problem of finding an optimal policy \pi(a|s) for choosing which actions to take depending on where you are. Also in the last article I displayed flows of blue arrows for navigating a robot as intuitive examples of optimal policies in planning or RL problems. But you cannot directly calculate those policies. Policies have to be evaluated in the long run so that they maximize returns, the sum of upcoming rewards. Then in order to calculate a policy p(a|s), you need to calculate a value functions v_{\pi}(s). v_{\pi}(s) is a function of how good it is to be in a given state s, under a policy \pi. That means it is likely you get higher return starting from s, when v_{\pi}(s) is high. As illustrated in the figure below, values and policies, which are two major elements of RL, are updated interactively until they converge to an optimal value or an optimal policy. The optimal policy and the optimal value are denoted as v_{\ast} and \pi_{\ast} respectively.

Dynamic programming (DP) is a family of algorithms which is effective for calculating the optimal value v_{\ast} and the optimal policy \pi_{\ast} when the complete model of the environment is given. Whether in my articles or not, the rest of discussions on RL are more or less based on DP. RL can be viewed as a method of achieving the same effects as DP when the model of the environment is not known. And I would say the effects of imitating DP are often referred to as trial and errors in many simplified explanations on RL. If you have studied some basics of computer science, I am quite sure you have encountered DP problems. With DP, in many problems on textbooks you find optimal paths of a graph from a start to a goal, through which you can maximizes the sum of scores of edges you pass. You might remember you could solve those problems in recursive ways, but I think many people have just learnt very limited cases of DP. For the time being I would like you to forget such DP you might have learned and comprehend it as something you newly start learning in the context of RL.

*As a more advances application of DP, you might have learned string matching. You can calculated how close two strings of characters are with DP using string matching.

The way of calculating v_{\pi}(s) and \pi(a|s) with DP can be roughly classified to two types, policy-based and value-based. Especially in the contexts of DP, the policy-based one is called policy iteration, and the values-based one is called value iteration. The biggest difference between them is, in short, policy iteration updates a policy every times step, but value iteration does it only at the last time step. I said you alternate between updating v_{\pi}(s) and \pi(a|s), but in fact that is only true of policy iteration. Value iteration updates a value function v(s). Before formulating these algorithms, I think it will be effective to take a look at how values and policies are actually updated in a very simple case. I would like to introduce a very good tool for visualizing value/policy iteration. You can customize a grid map and place either of “Treasure,” “Danger,” and “Block.” You can choose probability of transition and either of settings, “Policy Iteration” or “Values Iteration.” Let me take an example of conducting DP on a gird map like below. Whichever of “Policy Iteration” or “Values Iteration” you choose, you would get numbers like below. Each number in each cell is the value of each state, and you can see that when you are on states with high values, you are more likely to reach the “treasure” and avoid “dangers.” But I bet this chart does not make any sense if you have not learned RL yet. I prepared some code for visualizing the process of DP on this simulator. The code is available in this link.

*In the book by Sutton and Barto, when RL/DP is discussed at an implementation level, the estimated values of v_{\pi}(s) or v_{\ast}(s) can be denoted as an array V or V_t. But I would like you take it easy while reading my articles. I will repeatedly mentions differences of notations when that matters.

*Remember that at the beginning of studying RL, only super easy cases are considered, so a V is usually just a NumPy array or an Excel sheet.

*The chart above might be also misleading since there is something like a robot at the left bottom corner, which might be an agent. But the agent does not actually move around the environment in planning problems because it has a perfect model of the environment in the head.

The visualization I prepared is based on the implementation of the simulator, so they would give the same outputs. When you run policy iteration in the map, the values and polices are updated as follows. The arrow in each cell is the policy in the state. At each time step the arrows is calculated in a greedy way, and each arrow at each state shows the direction in which the agent is likely to get the highest reward. After 3 iterations, the policies and values converge, and with the policies you can navigate yourself to the “Treasure,” avoiding “Dangers.”

*I am not sure why policies are incorrect at the most left side of the grid map. I might need some modification of code.

You can also update values without modifying policies as the chart below. In this case only the values of cells are updated. This is value-iteration, and after this iteration converges, if you transit to an adjacent cell with the highest value at each cell, you can also navigate yourself to the “treasure,” avoiding “dangers.”

I would like to start formulating DP little by little,based on the notations used in the RL book by Sutton. From now on, I would take an example of the 5 \times 6 grid map which I visualized above. In this case each cell is numbered from 0 to 29 as the figure below. But the cell 7, 13, 14 are removed from the map. In this case \mathcal{S} = {0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29}, and \mathcal{A} = \{\uparrow, \rightarrow, \downarrow, \leftarrow \}. When you pass s=8, you get a reward r_{treasure}=1, and when you pass the states s=15 or s=19, you get a reward r_{danger}=-1. Also, the agent is encouraged to reach the goal as soon as possible, thus the agent gets a regular reward of r_{regular} = - 0.04 every time step.

In the last section, I mentioned that the purpose of RL is to find the optimal policy which maximizes a return, the sum of upcoming reward R_t. A return is calculated as follows.

R_{t+1} + R_{t+2} +  R_{t+3} + \cdots + R_T

In RL a return is estimated in probabilistic ways, that is, an expectation of the return given a state S_t = s needs to be considered. And this is the value of the state. Thus the value of a state S_t = s is calculated as follows.

\mathbb{E}_{\pi}\bigl[R_{t+1} + R_{t+2} +  R_{t+3} + \cdots + R_T | S_t = s \bigr]

In order to roughly understand how this expectation is calculated let’s take an example of the 5 \times 6 grid map above. When the current state of an agent is s=10, it can take numerous patterns of actions. For example (a) 10 - 9 - 8 - 2 , (b) 10-16-15-21-20-19, (c) 10-11-17-23-29-\cdots. The rewards after each behavior is calculated as follows.

  • If you take a you take the course (a) 10 - 9 - 8 - 2, you get a reward of r_a = -0.04 -0.04 + 1 -0.04 in total. The probability of taking a course of a) is p_a = \pi(A_t = \leftarrow | S_t = 10) \cdot p(S_{t+1} = 9 |S_t = 10, A_t = \leftarrow ) \cdot \pi(A_{t+1} = \leftarrow | S_{t+1} = 9) \cdot p(S_{t+2} = 8 |S_{t+1} = 9, A_{t+1} = \leftarrow ) \cdot \pi(A_{t+2} = \uparrow | S_{t+2} = 8) \cdot p(S_{t+3} = 2 | S_{t+2} = 8, A_{t+2} = \uparrow )
  • Just like the case of (a), the reward after taking the course (b) is r_b = - 0.04 -0.04 -1 -0.04 -0.04 -0.04 -1. The probability of taking the action can be calculated in the same way as p_b = \pi(A_t = \downarrow | S_t = 10) \cdot p(S_{t+1} = 16 |S_t = 10, A_t = \downarrow ) \cdots \pi(A_{t+4} = \leftarrow | S_{t+4} = 20) \cdot p(S_{t+5} = 19 |S_{t+4} = 20, A_{t+4} = \leftarrow ).
  • The rewards and the probability of the case (c) cannot be calculated because future behaviors of the agent is not confirmed.

Assume that (a) and (b) are the only possible cases starting from s, under the policy \pi, then the the value of s=10 can be calculated as follows as a probabilistic sum of rewards of each behavior (a) and (b).

\mathbb{E}_{\pi}\bigl[R_{t+1} + R_{t+2} +  R_{t+3} + \cdots + R_T | S_t = s \bigr] = r_a \cdot p_a + r_b \cdot p_b

But obviously this is not how values of states are calculated in general. Starting from a state a state s=10, not only (a) and (b), but also numerous other behaviors of agents can be considered. Or rather, it is almost impossible to consider all the combinations of actions, transition, and next states. In practice it is quite difficult to calculate a sequence of upcoming rewards R_{t+1}, \gamma R_{t+2}, R_{t+3} \cdots,and it is virtually equal to considering all the possible future cases.A very important formula named the Bellman equation effectively formulate that.

3, The Bellman equation and convergence of value functions

The Bellman equation enables estimating values of states considering future countless possibilities with the following two ideas.

  1.  Returns are calculated recursively.
  2.  Returns are calculated in probabilistic ways.

First of all, I have to emphasize that a discounted return is usually used rather than a normal return, and a discounted one is defined as below

G_t \doteq R_{t+1} + \gamma R_{t+2} + \gamma ^2 R_{t+3} + \cdots + \gamma ^ {T-t-1} R_T = \sum_{k=0}^{T-t-1}{\gamma ^{k}R_{t+k+1}}

, where \gamma \in (0, 1] is a discount rate. (1)As the first point above, the discounted return can be calculated recursively as follows: G_t = R_{t + 1} + \gamma R_{t + 2} + \gamma ^2 R_{t + 2} + \gamma ^3 R_{t + 3} + \cdots = R_{t + 1} + \gamma (R_{t + 2} + \gamma R_{t + 2} + \gamma ^2 R_{t + 3} + \cdots ) = R_{t + 1} + \gamma G_{t+1}. You can postpone calculation of future rewards corresponding to G_{t+1} this way. This might sound obvious, but this small trick is crucial for defining defining value functions or making update rules of them. (2)The second point might be confusing to some people, but it is the most important in this section. We took a look at a very simplified case of calculating the expectation in the last section, but let’s see how a value function v_{\pi}(s) is defined in the first place.

v_{\pi}(s) \doteq \mathbb{E}_{\pi}\bigl[G_t | S_t = s \bigr]

This equation means that the value of a state s is a probabilistic sum of all possible rewards taken in the future following a policy \pi. That is, v_{\pi}(s) is an expectation of the return, starting from the state s. The definition of a values v_{\pi}(s) is written down as follows, and this is what \mathbb{E}_{\pi} means.

v_{\pi} (s)= \sum_{a}{\pi(a|s) \sum_{s', r}{p(s', r|s, a)\bigl[r + \gamma v_{\pi}(s')\bigr]}}

This is called Bellman equation, and it is no exaggeration to say this is the foundation of many of upcoming DP or RL ideas. Bellman equation can be also written as \sum_{s', r, a}{\pi(a|s) p(s', r|s, a)\bigl[r + \gamma v_{\pi}(s')\bigr]}. It can be comprehended this way: in Bellman equation you calculate a probabilistic sum of r +v_{\pi}(s'), considering all the possible actions of the agent in the time step. r +v_{\pi}(s') is a sum of the values of the next state s' and a reward r, which you get when you transit to the state s' from s. The probability of getting a reward r after moving from the state s to s', taking an action a is \pi(a|s) p(s', r|s, a). Hence the right side of Bellman equation above means the sum of \pi(a|s) p(s', r|s, a)\bigl[r + \gamma v_{\pi}(s')\bigr], over all possible combinations of s', r, and a.

*I would not say this equation is obvious, and please let me explain a proof of this equation later.

The following figures are based on backup diagrams introduced in the book by Sutton and Barto. As we have just seen, Bellman expectation equation calculates a probabilistic summation of r + v(s'). In order to calculate the expectation, you have to consider all the combinations of s', r, and a. The backup diagram at the left side below shows the idea as a decision-tree-like graph, and strength of color of each arrow is the probability of taking the path.

The Bellman equation I have just introduced is called Bellman expectation equation to be exact. Like the backup diagram at the right side, there is another type of Bellman equation where you consider only the most possible path. Bellman optimality equation is defined as follows.

v_{\ast}(s) \doteq \max_{a} \sum_{s', r}{p(s', r|s, a)\bigl[r + \gamma v_{\ast}(s')\bigr]}

I would like you to pay attention again to the fact that in definitions of Bellman expectation/optimality equations, v_{\pi}(s)/v_{\ast}(s) is defined recursively with v_{\pi}(s)/v_{\ast}(s). You might have thought how to calculate v_{\pi}(s)/v_{\ast}(s) is the problem in the first place.

As I implied in the first section of this article, ideas behind how to calculate these v_{\pi}(s) and v_{\ast}(s) should be discussed more precisely. Especially how to calculate v_{\pi}(s) is a well discussed topic in RL, including the cases where data is sampled from an unknown environment model. In this article we are discussing planning problems, where a model an environment is known. In planning problems, that is DP problems where all the probabilities of transition p(s', r | s, a) are known, a major way of calculating v_{\pi}(s) is iterative policy evaluation. With iterative policy evaluation a sequence of value functions (v_0(s), v_1(s), \dots , v_{k-1}(s), v_{k}(s)) converges to v_{\pi}(s) with the following recurrence relation

v_{k+1}(s) =\sum_{a}{\pi(a|s)\sum_{s', r}{p(s', r | s, a) [r + \gamma v_k (s')]}}.

Once v_{k}(s) converges to v_{\pi}(s), finally the equation of the definition of v_{\pi}(s) holds as follows.

v_{\pi}(s) =\sum_{a}{\pi(a|s)\sum_{s', r}{p(s', r | s, a) [r + \gamma v_{\pi} (s')]}}.

The convergence to v_{\pi}(s) is like the graph below. If you already know how to calculate forward propagation of a neural network, this should not be that hard to understand. You just expand recurrent relation of v_{k}(s) and v_{k+1}(s) from the initial value at k=0 to the converged state at k=K. But you have to be careful abut the directions of the arrows in purple. If you correspond the backup diagrams of the Bellman equation with the graphs below, the purple arrows point to the reverse side to the direction where the graphs extend. This process of converging an arbitrarily initialized v_0(s) to v_{\pi}(s) is called policy evaluation.

*\mathcal{S}, \mathcal{A} are a set of states and actions respectively. Thus |\mathcal{S}|, the size of  \mathcal{S} is the number of white nodes in each layer, and |\mathcal{S}| the number of black nodes.

The same is true of the process of calculating an optimal value function v_{\ast}. With the following recurrence relation

v_{k+1}(s) =\max_a\sum_{s', r}{p(s', r | s, a) [r + \gamma v_k (s')]}

(v_0(s), v_1(s), \dots , v_{k-1}(s), v_{k}(s)) converges to an optimal value function v_{\ast}(s). The graph below visualized the idea of convergence.

4, Pseudocode of policy iteration and value iteration

I prepared pseudocode of each algorithm based on the book by Sutton and Barto. These would be one the most typical DP algorithms you would encounter while studying RL, and if you just want to implement RL by yourself, these pseudocode would enough. Or rather these would be preferable to other more general and abstract pseudocode. But I would like to avoid explaining these pseudocode precisely because I think we need to be more conscious about more general ideas behind DP, which I am going to explain in the next article. I will cover only the important points of these pseudocode, and I would like to introduce some implementation of the algorithms in the latter part of next article. I think you should briefly read this section and come back to this section section or other study materials after reading the next article. In case you want to check the algorithms precisely, you could check the pseudocode I made with LaTeX in this link.

The biggest difference of policy iteration and value iteration is the timings of updating a policy. In policy iteration, a value function v(s) and \pi(a|s) are arbitrarily initialized. (1)The first process is policy evaluation. The policy \pi(a|s) is fixed, and the value function v(s) approximately converge to v_{\pi}(s), which is a value function on the policy \pi. This is conducted by the iterative calculation with the reccurence relation introduced in the last section.(2) The second process is policy improvement. Based on the calculated value function v_{\pi}(s), the new policy \pi(a|s) is updated as below.

\pi(a|s) \gets\text{argmax}_a {r + \sum_{s', r}{p(s', r|s, a)[r + \gamma V(s')]}}, \quad \forall s\in \mathcal{S}

The meaning of this update rule of a policy is quite simple: \pi(a|s) is updated in a greedy way with an action a such that r + \sum_{s', r}{p(s', r|s, a)[r + \gamma V(s')]} is maximized. And when the policy \pi(a|s) is not updated anymore, the policy has converged to the optimal one. At least I would like you to keep it in mind that a while loop of itrative calculation of v_{\pi}(s) is nested in another while loop. The outer loop continues till the policy is not updated anymore.

On the other hand in value iteration, there is mainly only one loop of updating  v_{k}(s), which converge to v_{\ast}(s). And the output policy is the calculated the same way as policy iteration with the estimated optimal value function. According to the book by Sutton and Barto, value iteration can be comprehended this way: the loop of value iteration is truncated with only one iteration, and also policy improvement is done only once at the end.

As I repeated, I think policy iteration is more than just a single algorithm. And relations of values and policies should be discussed carefully rather than just following pseudocode. And whatever RL algorithms you learn, I think more or less you find some similarities to policy iteration. Thus in the next article, I would like to introduce policy iteration in more abstract ways. And I am going to take a rough look at various major RL algorithms with the keywords of “values” and “policies” in the next article.

Appendix

I mentioned the Bellman equation is nothing obvious. In this section, I am going to introduce a mathematical derivation, which I think is the most straightforward. If you are allergic to mathematics, the part blow is not recommendable, but the Bellman equation is the core of RL. I would not say this is difficult, and if you are going to read some texts on RL including some equations, I think mastering the operations I explain below is almost mandatory.

First of all, let’s organize some important points. But please tolerate inaccuracy of mathematical notations here. I am going to follow notations in the book by Sutton and Barto.

  • Capital letters usually denote random variables. For example X, Y,Z, S_t, A_t, R_{t+1}, S_{t+1}. And corresponding small letters are realized values of the random variables. For example x, y, z, s, a, r, s'. (*Please do not think too much about the number of 's on the small letters.)
  • Conditional probabilities in general are denoted as for example \text{Pr}\{X=x, Y=y | Z=z\}. This means the probability of x, y are sampled given that z is sampled.
  • In the book by Sutton and Barto, a probilistic funciton p(\cdot) means a probability of transition, but I am using p(\cdot) to denote probabilities in general. Thus p( s', a, r | s) shows the probability that, given an agent being in state s at time t, the agent will do action a, AND doing this action will cause the agent to proceed to state s' at time t+1, and receive reward r. p( s', a, r | s) is not defined in the book by Barto and Sutton.
  • The following equation holds about any conditional probabilities: p(x, y|z) = p(x|y, z)p(y|z). Thus importantly, p(s', a, r|s) = p(s', r| s, a)p(a|s)=p(s', r' | s, a)\pi(a|s)
  • When random variables X, Y are discrete random variables, a conditional expectation of X given Y=y is calculated as follows: \mathbb{E}[X|Y=y] = \sum_{x}{p(x|Y=y)}.

Keeping the points above in mind, let’s get down on business. First, according to definition of a value function on a policy pi and linearity of an expectation, the following equations hold.

v_{\pi}(s) = \mathbb{E} [G_t | S_t =s] = \mathbb{E} [R_{t+1} + \gamma G_{t+1} | S_t =s]

=\mathbb{E} [R_{t+1} | S_t =s] + \gamma \mathbb{E} [G_{t+1} | S_t =s]

Thus we need to calculate \mathbb{E} [R_{t+1} | S_t =s] and \mathbb{E} [G_{t+1} | S_t =s]. As I have explained \mathbb{E} [R_{t+1} | S_t =s] is the sum of p(s', a, r |s) r over all the combinations of (s', a, r). And according to one of the points above, p(s', a, r |s) = p(s', r | s, a)p(a|s)=p(s', r' | s, a)\pi(a|s). Thus the following equation holds.

\mathbb{E} [R_{t+1} | S_t =s] = \sum_{s', a, r}{p(s', a, r|s)r} = \sum_{s', a, r}{p(s', r | s, a)\pi(a|s)r}.

Next we have to calculate

\mathbb{E} [G_{t+1} | S_t =s]

= \mathbb{E} [R_{t + 2} + \gamma R_{t + 3} + \gamma ^2 R_{t + 4} + \cdots | S_t =s]

= \mathbb{E} [R_{t + 2}  | S_t =s] + \gamma \mathbb{E} [R_{t + 2} | S_t =s]  + \gamma ^2\mathbb{E} [ R_{t + 4} | S_t =s]  +\cdots.

Let’s first calculate \mathbb{E} [R_{t + 2}  | S_t =s]. Also \mathbb{E} [R_{t + 3}  | S_t =s] is a sum of p(s'', a', r', s', a, r|s)r' over all the combinations of (s”, a’, r’, s’, a, r).

\mathbb{E}_{\pi} [R_{t + 2}  | S_t =s] =\sum_{s'', a', r', s', a, r}{p(s'', a', r', s', a, r|s)r'}

=\sum_{s'', a', r', s', a, r}{p(s'', a', r'| s', a, r, s)p(s', a, r|s)r'}

=\sum_{ s', a, r}{p(s', a, r|s)} \sum_{s'', a', r'}{p(s'', a', r'| s', a, r, s)r'}

I would like you to remember that in Markov decision process the next state S_{t+1} and the reward R_t only depends on the current state S_t and the action A_t at the time step.

Thus in variables s', a, r, s, only s' have the following variables r', a', s'', r'', a'', s''', \dots.  And again p(s', a, r |s) = p(s', r | s, a)p(a|s). Thus the following equations hold.

\mathbb{E}_{\pi} [R_{t + 2}  | S_t =s]=\sum_{ s', a, r}{p(s', a, r|s)} \sum_{s'', a', r'}{p(s'', a', r'| s', a, r', s)r'}

=\sum_{ s', a, r}{p(s', r|a, s)\pi(a|s)} \sum_{s'', a', r'}{p(s'', a', r'| s')r'}

= \sum_{ s', a, r}{p(s', r|a, s)\pi(a|s)} \mathbb{E}_{\pi} [R_{t+2}  | s'].

\mathbb{E}_{\pi} [R_{t + 3}  | S_t =s] can be calculated the same way.

\mathbb{E}_{\pi}[R_{t + 3}  | S_t =s] =\sum_{s''', a'', r'', s'', a', r', s', a, r}{p(s''', a'', r'', s'', a', r', s', a, r|s)r''}

=\sum_{s''', a'', r'', s'', a', r', s', a, r}{p(s''', a'', r'', s'', a', r'| s', a, r, s)p(s', a, r|s)r''}

=\sum_{ s', a, r}{p(s', a, r|s)} \sum_{s''', a'' r'', s'', a', r'}{p(s''', a'', r'', s'', a', r'| s', a, r, s)r''}

=\sum_{ s', a, r}{ p(s', r | s, a)p(a|s)} \sum_{s''', a'' r'', s'', a', r'}{p(s''', a'', r'', s'', a', r'| s')r''}

=\sum_{ s', a, r}{ p(s', r | s, a)p(a|s)} \mathbb{E}_{\pi} [R_{t+3}  | s'].

The same is true of calculating \mathbb{E}_{\pi} [R_{t + 4}  | S_t =s], \mathbb{E}_{\pi} [R_{t + 5}  | S_t =s]\dots.  Thus

v_{\pi}(s) =\mathbb{E} [R_{t+1} | S_t =s] + \gamma \mathbb{E} [G_{t+1} | S_t =s]

=\sum_{s', a, r}{p(s', r | s, a)\pi(a|s)r} + \mathbb{E} [R_{t + 2}  | S_t =s] + \gamma \mathbb{E} [R_{t + 3} | S_t =s]  + \gamma ^2\mathbb{E} [ R_{t + 4} | S_t =s]  +\cdots

=\sum_{s, a, r}{p(s', r | s, a)\pi(a|s)r} +\sum_{ s', a, r}{p(s', r|a, s)\pi(a|s)} \mathbb{E}_{\pi} [R_{t+2}  |S_{t+1}= s'] +\gamma \sum_{ s', a, r}{ p(s', r | s, a)p(a|s)} \mathbb{E}_{\pi} [R_{t+3} |S_{t+1} =  s'] +\gamma^2 \sum_{ s', a, r}{ p(s', r | s, a)p(a|s)} \mathbb{E}_{\pi} [ R_{t+4}|S_{t+1} =  s'] + \cdots

=\sum_{ s', a, r}{ p(s', r | s, a)p(a|s)} [r + \mathbb{E}_{\pi} [\gamma R_{t+2}+ \gamma R_{t+3}+\gamma^2R_{t+4} + \cdots |S_{t+1} =  s'] ]

=\sum_{ s', a, r}{ p(s', r | s, a)p(a|s)} [r + \mathbb{E}_{\pi} [G_{t+1} |S_{t+1} =  s'] ]

=\sum_{ s', a, r}{ p(s', r | s, a)p(a|s)} [r + v_{\pi}(s') ]

ACID vs BASE Concepts

Understanding databases for storing, updating and analyzing data requires the understanding of two concepts: ACID and BASE. This is the first article of the article series Data Warehousing Basics.

The properties of ACID are being applied for databases in order to fulfill enterprise requirements of reliability and consistency.

ACID is an acronym, and stands for:

  • Atomicity – Each transaction is either properly executed completely or does not happen at all. If the transaction was not finished the process reverts the database back to the state before the transaction started. This ensures that all data in the database is valid even if we execute big transactions which include multiple statements (e. g. SQL) composed into one transaction updating many data rows in the database. If one statement fails, the entire transaction will be aborted, and hence, no changes will be made.
  • Consistency – Databases are governed by specific rules defined by table formats (data types) and table relations as well as further functions like triggers. The consistency of data will stay reliable if transactions never endanger the structural integrity of the database. Therefor, it is not allowed to save data of different types into the same single column, to use written primary key values again or to delete data from a table which is strictly related to data in another table.
  • Isolation – Databases are multi-user systems where multiple transactions happen at the same time. With Isolation, transactions cannot compromise the integrity of other transactions by interacting with them while they are still in progress. It guarantees data tables will be in the same states with several transactions happening concurrently as they happen sequentially.
  • Durability – The data related to the completed transaction will persist even in cases of network or power outages. Databases that guarante Durability save data inserted or updated permanently, save all executed and planed transactions in a recording and ensure availability of the data committed via transaction even after a power failure or other system failures If a transaction fails to complete successfully because of a technical failure, it will not transform the targeted data.

ACID Databases

The ACID transaction model ensures that all performed transactions will result in reliable and consistent databases. This suits best for businesses which use OLTP (Online Transaction Processing) for IT-Systems such like ERP- or CRM-Systems. Furthermore, it can also be a good choice for OLAP (Online Analytical Processing) which is used in Data Warehouses. These applications need backend database systems which can handle many small- or medium-sized transactions occurring simultaneous by many users. An interrupted transaction with write-access must be removed from the database immediately as it could cause negative side effects impacting the consistency(e.g., vendors could be deleted although they still have open purchase orders or financial payments could be debited from one account and due to technical failure, never credited to another).

The speed of the querying should be as fast as possible, but even more important for those applications is zero tolerance for invalid states which is prevented by using ACID-conform databases.

BASE Concept

ACID databases have their advantages but also one big tradeoff: If all transactions need to be committed and checked for consistency correctly, the databases are slow in reading and writing data. Furthermore, they demand more effort if it comes to storing new data in new formats.

In chemistry, a base is the opposite to acid. The database concepts of BASE and ACID have a similar relationship. The BASE concept provides several benefits over ACID compliant databases asthey focus more intensely on data availability of database systems without guarantee of safety from network failures or inconsistency.

The acronym BASE is even more confusing than ACID as BASE relates to ACID indirectly. The words behind BASE suggest alternatives to ACID.

BASE stands for:

  • Basically Available – Rather than enforcing consistency in any case, BASE databases will guarantee availability of data by spreading and replicating it across the nodes of the database cluster. Basic read and write functionality is provided without liabilityfor consistency. In rare cases it could happen that an insert- or update-statement does not result in persistently stored data. Read queries might not provide the latest data.
  • Soft State – Databases following this concept do not check rules to stay write-consistent or mutually consistent. The user can toss all data into the database, delegating the responsibility of avoiding inconsistency or redundancy to developers or users.
  • Eventually Consistent –No guarantee of enforced immediate consistency does not mean that the database never achieves it. The database can become consistent over time. After a waiting period, updates will ripple through all cluster nodes of the database. However, reading data out of it will stay always be possible, it is just not certain if we always get the last refreshed data.

All the three above mentioned properties of BASE-conforming databases sound like disadvantages. So why would you choose BASE? There is a tradeoff compared to ACID. If databases do not have to follow ACID properties then the database can work much faster in terms of writing and reading from the database. Further, the developers have more freedom to implement data storage solutions or simplify data entry into the database without thinking about formats and structure beforehand.

BASE Databases

While ACID databases are mostly RDBMS, most other database types, known as NoSQL databases, tend more to conform to BASE principles. Redis, CouchDB, MongoDB, Cosmos DB, Cassandra, ElasticSearch, Neo4J, OrientDB or ArangoDB are just some popular examples. But other than ACID, BASE is not a strict approach. Some NoSQL databases apply at least partly to ACID rules or provide optional functions to get almost or even full ACID compatibility. These databases provide different level of freedom which can be useful for the Staging Layer in Data Warehouses or as a Data Lake, but they are not the recommended choice for applications which need data environments guaranteeing strict consistency.

Data Warehousing Basiscs

Data Warehousing is applied Big Data Management and a key success factor in almost every company. Without a data warehouse, no company today can control its processes and make the right decisions on a strategic level as there would be a lack of data transparency for all decision makers. Bigger comanies even have multiple data warehouses for different purposes.

In this series of articles I would like to explain what a data warehouse actually is and how it is set up. However, I would also like to explain basic topics regarding Data Engineering and concepts about databases and data flows.

To do this, we tick off the following points step by step:

 

Why Do Companies Use Data Lakes?

Modern enterprise-level computing operations have to capture a truly monumental amount of information every single hour. As the scale of data has grown almost exponentially over the years, so has the scale and complexity of data stores. Traditional databases couldn’t possibly keep up with the massive numbers of records that have to be created today, which is why so many firms ended up looking for alternatives to them.

For a while, it certainly seemed as though the new breed of data warehouses would fit the bill. Enterprises that had to harvest information from all of their inputs regarding every possible function of their businesses ran to adopt this new paradigm even as the streams of data they were collecting turned into raging rivers that some might call fire hoses. Into this scattered market entered an even new concept that attempts to refactor the data processing question into a tranquil lake as opposed to that torrential downpour.

When businesses turn to this kind of digital infrastructure, they’re often looking to make sense out of this otherwise immeasurable flood.

When Data Lakes Beat Out Warehouses

Since lakes are taking over in a space currently occupied by already existing operational structures, the data lake vs data warehouse debate is currently pretty heated. Proponents of lakes say that one of the biggest reasons that companies are turning to them is the question of vendor lock-in. When an enterprise-level user stores all of their information into a conventional warehouse, they’re locked into a single vendor who processes data on their behalf. In general, their storage and analytic algorithms are bundled together into a package that’s not easy to separate into disparate parts.

Others might be dealing with a specific processing engine that requires all of their information to be formatted a certain way as its own inputs can only understand data presented in said format. Those who’re dealing with this issue might not notice it until they finally get a flow of information that’s in some format that the warehouse engine doesn’t understand. Writing custom software to convert it isn’t an easy task, especially when there’s no API to work with.

Admittedly, these issues don’t normally come up when dealing with simple and concrete data analytics pipelines. Data warehouses do a great job of making information available and they certainly help managers draw insights from data that they might not otherwise get a chance to visualize and understand. As soon as you get into things like log analytics or processing data through machine learning technology, data warehouses will struggle. They’re normally based around relational database formats, which aren’t designed to manage semi-structured information.

Instead of going through the incredibly complex process of normalizing and cleaning all of the incoming data, it makes more sense for organization-wide IS departments to transition to a data lake.

Shifting to Data Lakes the Easy Way

Change is never easy, and that’s especially true when you’re working with IT in an enterprise market. However, the promises made by data lake proponents are attractive enough that some are making the leap. They offer an affordable single repository for all of your information regardless of what you want to store, which is why so many are now taking a dip in these virtual bodies of digital water. Structured and unstructured data can fit in together, which is certainly helping to ease the transition in many cases.

IS department staffers and technologists have found that streaming data straight from a transactional database into a data lake abstraction is a simple process. Doing so gives them the freedom to run analytics on it at a later date. Best of all, semi-structured seemingly random data points like those that come from a clickstream analysis can be moved in real-time without having to write some kind of intermediary back-end script that forces it into some kind of relational format.

However, some have taken this entirely too far and that’s where most of the criticism of data lake technology seems to be coming from. Data lakes unfortunately have to be managed carefully and the information stored in them still has to be organized in some way that makes sense and is, ideally, human readable. Locating completely unstructured data later on will simply be too difficult.

True believers in the technology have developed new solutions that get around this problem without requiring engineers to write any customized code, which has helped even skeptical businesses adopt this technology.

The Rise of Open Data Lakes

Building an open data lake is key to ensuring that any kind of processing engine can read information that comes out of the lake. That’s why an increasing number of developers are turning to platforms that don’t store this information in any proprietary format. While this might seem like it could get confusing since there are a number of different competing standards vying for market dominance, it’s actually aiding adoption.

Competition, even in the open-source community, has helped to ensure that data processing software ships with a relatively low incidence of bugs. The fact that there are multiple vendors in the space has also proven helpful to IS department heads looking to implement data lake solutions in their own organizations. Rather than just picking a single vendor who then provides everything, they could use several to handle different chores and get the best of all the available options. For instance, Amazon Athena-based technology may query information in a lake directly while IoT and log processing could be handled by something based on the Lucene library like Elasticsearch.

Some specialists might even wish to introduce Splunk or other related solutions into their custom data lake layouts. The wide variety of off-the-shelf projects has helped to dramatically reduce the number of individuals who have to write custom solutions, which makes it easy to get up and go with a new lake. Since there’s no need to convert information into a specific format, the implementation phase is usually much smoother.

Regardless of which specific solutions they elect to go with, however, it’s likely that an increasingly large percentage of the data processing market will look to data lakes. They’re quickly proving themselves to be both flexible and at least relatively easy to roll out.

Understanding the “simplicity” of reinforcement learning: comprehensive tips to take the trouble out of RL

*I adjusted mathematical notations in this article as close as possible to “Reinforcement Learning:An Introduction.”  This book by Sutton and Barto is said to be almost mandatory for those who studying reinforcement learning. Also I tried to avoid as much mathematical notations, introducing some intuitive examples. In case any descriptions are confusing or unclear, informing me of that via posts or email would be appreciated.

Preface

First of all, I have to emphasize that I am new to reinforcement learning (RL), and my current field is object detection, to be more concrete transfer learning in object detection. Thus this article series itself is also a kind of study note for me. Reinforcement learning (RL) is often briefly compared with human trial and errors, and actually RL is based on neuroscience or psychology as well as neural networks (I am not sure about these fields though). The word “reinforcement” roughly means associating rewards with certain actions. Some experiments of RL were conducted on animals, which are widely known as Skinner box or more classically Pavlov’s Dogs. In short, you can encourage animals to do something by giving foods to them as rewards, just as many people might have done to their dogs. Before animals find linkages between certain actions and foods as rewards to those actions, they would just keep trial and errors. We can think of RL as a family of algorithms which mimics this behavior of animals trying to obtain as much reward as possible.

*My cats will not all the way try to entertain me to get foods though.

RL showed its conspicuous success in the field of video games, such as Atari, and defeating the world champion of Go, one of the most complicated board games. Actually RL can be applied to not only video games or board games, but also various other fields, such as business intelligence, medicine, and finance, but still I am very much fascinated by its application on video games. I am now studying the field which could bridge between the world of video games and the real world. I would like to mention this in the one of upcoming articles.

So far I got an impression that learning RL ideas would be more challenging than learning classical machine learning or deep learning for the following reasons.

  1. RL is a field of how to train models, rather than how to design the models themselves. That means you have to consider a variety of problem settings, and you would often forget which situation you are discussing.
  2. You need prerequisites knowledge about the models of components of RL for example neural networks, which are usually main topics in machine/deep learning textbooks.
  3. It is confusing what can be learned through RL depending on the types of tasks.
  4. Even after looking over at formulations of RL, it is still hard to imagine how RL enables computers to do trial and errors.

*For now I would like you to keep it in mind that basically values and policies are calculated during in during RL.

And I personally believe you should always keep the following points in your mind in order not to be at a loss in the process of learning RL.

  1.  RL basically can be only applied to a very limited type of situation, which is called Markov decision process (MDP). In MDP settings your next state depends only on your current state and action, regardless of what you have done so far.
  2. You are ultimately interested in learning decision making rules in MDP, which are called policies.
  3. In the first stage of learning RL, you consider surprisingly simple situations. They might be simple like mazes in kids’ picture books.
  4. RL is in its early days of development.

Let me explain a bit more about what I meant by the third point above. I have been learning RL mainly with a very precise Japanese textbook named 「機械学習プロフェッショナルシリーズ 強化学習」(Machine Learning Professional Series: Reinforcement Learning). As I mentioned in an article of my series on RNN, I sometimes dislike Western textbooks because they tend to beat around the bush with simple examples to get to the point at a more abstract level. That is why I prefer reading books of this series in Japanese. And especially the RL one in the series was especially bulky and so abstract and overbearing to a spectacular degree. It had so many precise mathematical notations without leaving room for ambiguity, thus it took me a long time to notice that the book was merely discussing simple situations like mazes in kids’ picture books. I mean, the settings discussed were so simple that they can be expressed as tabular data, that is some Excel sheets.

*I could not notice that until the beginning of 6th chapter out of eight out of 8 chapters. The 6th chapter discusses uses of function approximators. With the approximations you can approximate tabular data. My articles will not dig this topic of approximation precisely, but the use of deep learning models, which I am going to explain someday, is a type of this approximation of RL models.

You might find that so many explanations on RL rely on examples of how to make computers navigate themselves in simple mazes or in playing video games, which are mostly impractical in the real world. However, as I will explain later, these are actually helpful examples to learn RL. As I show later, the relations of an agent and an environment are basically the same also in more complicated tasks. Reading some code or actually implementing RL would be very effective, especially in order to know simplicity of the situations in the beginning part of RL textbooks.

Given that you can do a lot of impressive and practical stuff with current deep learning libraries, you might get bored or disappointed by simple applications of RL in many textbooks. But as I mentioned above, RL is in its early days of development, at least at a public level. And in order to show its potential power, I am going to explain one of the most successful and complicated application of RL in the next article: I am planning to explain how AlphaGo or AplhaZero, RL-based AIs enabled computers to defeat the world champion of Go, one of the most complicated board games.

*RL was not used to the chess AI which defeated Kasparov in 1997. Combination of decision trees and super computers, without RL, was enough for the “simplicity” of chess. But uses of decision tree named Monte Carlo Tree Search enabled Alpha Go to read some steps ahead more effectively.  It is said deep learning enabled AlphaGo to have intuition about games. Mote Carlo Tree Search enabled it to have abilities to predict some steps ahead, and RL how to learn from experience.

1. What is RL?

In conclusion I would interpret RL as follows: RL is a sub-field of training AI models, and optimal rules for decision makings in an environment are learned through RL, weakly supervised by rewards in a certain period of time. When and how to evaluate decision makings are task-specific, and they are often realized by trial-and-error-like behaviors of agents. Rules for decision makings are called policies in contexts of RL. And optimization problems of policies are called sequential decision-making problems.

You are more or less going to see what I meant by my definition throughout my article series.

*An agent in RL means an entity which makes decisions, interacting with the environment with an action. And the actions are made based on policies.

You can find various types of charts explaining relations of RL with AI, and I personally found the chart below the most plausible.

“Models” in the chart are often hyped as “AI” in media today. But AI is a more comprehensive field of trying to realize human-like intellectual behaviors with computers. And machine learning have been the most central sub-field of AI last decades. Around 2006 there was a breakthrough of deep learning. Due to the breakthrough machine learning gained much better performance with deep learning models. I would say people have been calling popular “models” in each time “AI.” And importantly, RL is one field of training models, besides supervised learning and unsupervised learning, rather than a field of designing “AI” models. Some people say supervised learning or unsupervised learning are more preferable than RL because currently these trainings are more likely to be more successful in wide range of fields than RL. And usually the more data you have the more likely supervised or unsupervised learning are.

*The word “models” are used in another meaning later. Please keep it in mind that the “models” above are something like general functions. And the “models” which show up frequently later are functions modeling environments in RL.

*In case you’re totally new to AI and don’t understand what “supervising” means in these contexts, I think you should imagine cases of instructing students in schools. If a teacher just tells students “We have a Latin conjugation test next week, so you must check this section in the textbook.” to students, that’s a “supervised learning.” Students who take exams are “models.” Apt students like machine learning models would show excellent performances, but they might fail to apply the knowledge somewhere else. I mean, they might fail to properly conjugate words in unseen sentences. Next, if the students share an idea “It’s comfortable to get together with people alike.” they might be clustered to several groups. That might lead to “cool guys” or “not cool guys” group division. This is done without any explicit answers, and this corresponds to “unsupervised learning.” In this case, I would say a certain functions of the students’ brain or atmosphere there, which put similar students together, were the “models.” And finally, if teachers tell the students “Be a good student,” that’s what I meant with “weakly supervising.” However most people would say “How?” RL could correspond to such ultimate goals of education, and as well as education, you have to consider how to give rewards and how to evaluate students/agents. And “models” can vary. But such rewards often shows unexpected results.

2. RL and Markov decision process

As I mentioned in a former section, you have to keep it in mind that RL basically can be applied to a limited situation of sequential decision-making problems, which are called Markov decision processes (MDP). A markov decision process is a type of process where the next state of an agent depends only on the current state and the action taken in the current state. I would only roughly explain MDP in this article with a little formulation.

You might find MDPs very simple. But some people would find that their daily lives in fact can be described well with a MDP. The figure below is a state transition diagram of everyday routine at an office, and this is nothing but a MDP. I think many workers also basically have only four states “Chat” “Coffee” “Computer” and “Home” almost everyday.  Numbers in black are possibilities of transitions at the state, and each corresponding number in orange is the reward you get when the action is taken. The diagram below shows that when you just keep using a computer, you would likely to get high rewards. On the other hand chatting with your colleagues would just continue to another term of chatting with a probability of 50%, and that undermines productivity by giving out the reward of -1. And having some coffee is very likely to lead to a chat. In practice, you optimize which action to take in each situation. You adjust probabilities at each state, that is you adjust a policy, through planning or via trial and error.

Source: https://subscription.packtpub.com/book/data/9781788834247/1/ch01lvl1sec12/markov-decision-processes

*Even if you say “Be a good student,” school kids in puberty they would act far from Markov decision process. Even though I took an example of school earlier, I am sure education should be much more complicated process which requires constant patience.

Of course you have to consider much more complicated MDPs in most RL problems, and in most cases you do not have known models like state transition diagrams. Or rather I have to say RL enables you to estimate such diagrams, which are usually called models in contexts of RL, by trial and errors. When you study RL, for the most part you will see a chart like below. I think it is important to understand what this kind of charts mean, whatever study materials on RL you consult. I said RL is basically a training method for finding optimal decision making rules called policies. And in RL settings, agents estimate such policies by taking actions in the environment. The environment determines a reward and the next state based on the current state and the current action of the agent.

Let’s take a close look at the chart above in a bit mathematical manner. I made it based on “Machine Learning Professional Series: Reinforcement Learning.” The agent exert an action a in the environment, and the agent receives a reward r and the next state s'. r and s' are consequences of taking the action a in the state s. The action a is taken based on a conditional probability given s, which is denoted as \pi(a|s). This probability function \pi(a|s) is the very function representing policies, which we want to optimize in RL.

*Please do not think too much about differences of \sim and = in the chart. Actions, rewards, or transitions of states can be both deterministic or probabilistic. In the chart above, with the notation a \sim \pi (a|s) I meant that the action a is taken with a probability of \pi (a|s). And whether they are probabilistic or deterministic is task-specific. Also you should keep it in mind that all the values in the chart are realized values of random variables as I show in the chart at the right side.

In the textbook “Reinforcement Learning:An Introduction” by Richard S. Sutton, which is almost mandatory for all the RL learners, RL process is displayed as the left side of the figure below. Each capital letter in the chart means a random variable. Relations of random variables can be also displayed as graphical models like the right side of the chart. The graphical model is a time series expansion of the chart of RL loops at the left side. The chart below shows almost the same idea as the one above. Whether they use random variables or realized values is the only difference between them. My point is that decision makings are simplified in RL as the models I have explained. Even if some situations are not strictly MDPs, in many cases the problems are approximated as MDPs in practice so that RL can be applied to.

*I personally think you do not have to care so much about differences of random variables and their realized values in RL unless you discuss RL mathmematically. But if you do not know there are two types of notations, which are strictly different ideas, you might get confused while reading textboks on RL. At least in my artile series, I will strictly distinguish them only when their differences matter.

*In case you are not sure about differences of random variables and their realizations, please roughly grasp the terms as follows: random variables X are probabilistic tools for example dices. On the other hand their realized values x are records of them, for example (4, 1, 6, 6, 2, 1, …).  And the probability that a random variable X takes on the value x is denoted as Pr\{X = x\}. And X \sim p means the random variable X is selected from distribution p(x) \doteq \text{Pr} \{X=x\}. In case X is a “dice,” for any x p(x) = \frac{1}{6}.

3. Planning and RL

We have seen RL is a family of training algorithms which optimizes rules for choosing A_t = a in sequential decision-making problems, usually assuming them to be MDPs. However I have to emphasize that RL is not the only way to optimize such policies. In sequential decision making problems, when the model of the environment is known, policies can be optimized also through planning without collecting data from the environment. On the other hand, when the model of the environment is unknown policies have to be optimized based on data which an agents collects from the environment through trial and errors. This is the very case called RL. You might find planning problems very simple and unrealistic in practical cases. But RL is based on planning of sequential decision-making problems with MDP settings, so studying planning problems is inevitable.  As far as I could see so far, RL is a family of algorithms for approximating techniques in planning problems through trial and errors in environments. To be more concrete, in the next article I am going to explain dynamic programming (DP) in RL contexts as a major example of planning problems, and a formula called the Bellman equation plays a crucial role in planning. And after that we are going to see that RL algorithms are more or less approximations of Bellman equation by agents sampling data from environments.

As an intuitive example, I would like to take a case of navigating a robot, which is explained in a famous textbook on robotics named “Probabilistic Robotics”. In this case, the state set \mathcal{S} is the whole space on the map where the robot can move around. And the action set is \mathcal{A} = \{\rightarrow, \searrow, \downarrow, \swarrow \leftarrow, \nwarrow, \uparrow, \nearrow \}. If the robot does not fail to take any actions or there are no unexpected obstacles, manipulating the robot on the map is a MDP. In this example, the robot has to be navigated from the start point as the green dot to the goal as the red dot. In this case, blue arrows can be obtained through planning or RL. Each blue arrow denotes the action taken in each place, following the estimated policy. In other words, the function \pi is the flow of the blue arrows. But policies can vary even in the same problem. If you just want the robot to reach the goal as soon as possible, you might get a blue arrows in the figure at the top after planning. But that means the robot has to pass a narrow street, and it is likely to bump into the walls. If you prefer to avoid such risks, you should adopt policies of choosing wider streets, like the blue arrows in the figure at the bottom.

*In the textbook on probabilistic robotics, this case is classified to a planning problem rather than a RL problem because it assumes that the robot has a complete model of the environment, and RL is not introduced in the textbook. In case of robotics one major way of making a model, or rather a map is SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping). With SLAM, a map of the environment can be made only based on what have been seen with a moving camera like in the figure below. Half the first part of the textbook is about self localization of robots and gaining maps of environments. And the latter part is about planning in the gained map. RL is also based on planning problems as I explained. I would say RL is another branch of techniques to gain such models/maps and proper plans in the environment through trial and errors.

In the example of robotics above, we have not considered rewards R_t in the course of navigating the agent. That means the reward is given only when it reaches the goal. But agents can get lost if they get a reward only at the goal. Thus in many cases you optimize a policy \pi(a|s) such that it maximizes the sum of rewards R_1 + R_2 + \cdots + R_T, where T is the the length of the whole sequence of MDP in this case. More concretely, at every time step t, agents have to estimate G_t \doteq R_{t+1} + R_{t+2} + \cdots + R_T. The G_t is called a return. But you usually have to consider uncertainty of future rewards, so in practice you multiply a discount rate \gamma \quad (0\leq \gamma \leq 1) with rewards every time step. Thus in practice agents estimate a discounted return every time step as follows.

G_t \doteq R_{t+1} + \gamma R_{t+2} + \gamma ^2 R_{t+3} + \cdots + \gamma ^ {T-t-1} R_T = \sum_{k=0}^{T-t-1}{\gamma ^{k}R_{t+k+1}}

If agents blindly try to maximize immediate upcoming rewards R_t in a greedy way, that can lead to smaller amount of rewards in the long run. Policies in RL have to be optimized so that they maximize return, a sum of upcoming rewards G_t, every time step. But still, it is not realistic to take all the upcoming rewards R_{t+1}, R_{t+2}, \dots directly into consideration. These rewards have to be calculated recursively and probabilistically every time step. To be exact values of states are calculated this way. The value of a state in contexts of RL mean how likely agents get higher values if they start from the state. And how to calculate values is formulated as the Bellman equation.

*If you are not sure what “ecursively” and “probabilistically” mean, please do not think too much. I am going to explain that as precisely as possible in the next article.

I am going to explain Bellman equation, or Bellman operator to be exact in the next article. For now I would like you to keep it in mind that Bellman operator calculates the value of a state by considering future actions and their following states and rewards. Bellman equation is often displayed as a decision-tree-like chart as below. I would say planning and RL are matter of repeatedly applying Bellman equation to values of states. In planning problems, the model of the environment is known. That is, all the connections of nodes of the graph at the left side of the figure below are known. On the other hand in RL, those connections are not completely known, thus they need to be estimated in certain ways by agents collecting data from the environment.

*I guess almost no one explain RL ideas as the graphs above, and actually I am in search of effective and correct ways of visualizing RL. But so far, I think the graphs above describe how values updated in RL problem settings with discrete data. You are going to see what these graphs mean little by little in upcoming articles. I am also planning to introduce Bellman operators to formulate RL so that you do not have to think about decision-tree-like graphs all the time.

4. Examples of how RL problems are modeled

You might find that so many explanations on RL rely on examples of how to make computers navigate themselves in simple mazes or play video games, which are mostly impractical in real world. But I think uses of RL in letting computers play video games are good examples when you study RL. The video game industry is one of the most developed and sophisticated area which have produced environments of RL. OpenAI provides some “playgrounds” where agents can actually move around, and there are also some ports of Atari games. I guess once you understand how RL can be modeled in those simulations, that helps to understand how other more practical tasks are implemented.

*It is a pity that there is no E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It is a notorious video game which put an end of the reign of Atari. And after that came the era of Nintendo Entertainment System.

In the second section of this article, I showed the most typical diagram of the fundamental RL idea. The diagrams below show correspondences of each element of some simple RL examples to the diagram of general RL. Multi-armed bandit problems are a family of the most straightforward RL tasks, and I am going to explain it a bit more precisely later in this article. An agent solving a maze is also a very major example of RL tasks. In this case states s\in \mathcal{S} are locations where an agent can move. Rewards r \in \mathcal{R} are goals or bonuses the agents get in the course of the maze. And in this case \mathcal{A} = \{\rightarrow, \downarrow,\leftarrow, \uparrow \}.

If the environments are more complicated, deep learning is needed to make more complicated functions to model each component of RL. Such RL is called deep reinforcement learning. The examples below are some successful cases of uses of deep RL. I think it is easy to imagine that the case of solving a maze is close to RL playing video games. In this case \mathcal{A} is all the possible commands with an Atari controller like in the figure below. Deep Q Networks use deep learning in RL algorithms named Q learning. The development of convolutional neural networks (CNN) enabled computers to comprehend what are displayed on video game screens. Thanks to that, video games do not need to be simplified like mazes. Even though playing video games, especially complicated ones today, might not be strict MDPs, deep Q Networks simplifies the process of playing Atari as MDP. That is why the process playing video games can be simplified as the chart below, and this simplified MPD model can surpass human performances. AlphaGo and AlphaZero are anotehr successful cases of deep RL. AlphaGo is ther first RL model which defeated the world Go champion. And some training schemes were simplified and extented to other board games like chess in AlphaZero. Even though they were sensations in media as if they were menaces to human intelligence, they are also based on MDPs. A policy network which calculates which tactics to take to enhance probability of winning board games. But they use much more sophisticated and complicated techniques. And it is almost impossible to try training them unless you own a tech company or something with some servers mounted with some TPUs. But I am going to roughly explain how they work in one of my upcoming articles.

5. Some keywords for organizing terms of RL

As I am also going to explain in next two articles, RL algorithms are totally different frameworks of training machine learning models compared to supervised/unsupervised learnig. I think pairs of keywords below are helpful in classifying RL algorithms you are going to encounter.

(1) “Model-based” or “model-free.”

I said planning problems are basics of RL problems, and in many cases RL algorithms approximate Bellman equation or related ideas. I also said planning problems can be solved by repeatedly applying Bellman equations on states of a model of an environment. But in RL problems, models are usually unknown, and agents can only move in an environment which gives a reward or the next state to an agent. The agent can gains richer information of the environment time step by time step in RL, but this procedure can be roughly classified to two types: model-free type and model-based type. In model-free type, models of the environment are not explicitly made, and policies are updated based on data collected from the environment. On the her hand, in model-based types the models of the environment are estimated, and policies are calculated based on the model.

*AlphaGo and AlphaZero are examples of model-based RL. Phases of board games can be modeled with CNN. Plannings in this case correspond to reading some phases ahead of games, and they are enabled by Monte Carlo tree search. They are the only examples of model-based RL which I can come up with. And also I had an impression that many study materials on RL focus on model-free types of RL.

(2) “Values” or “policies.”

I mentioned that in RL, values and policies are optimized. Values are functions of a value of each state. The value here means how likely an agent gets high rewards in the future, starting from the state. Policies are functions fro calculating actions to take in each state, which I showed as each of blue arrows in the example of robotics above. But in RL, these two functions are renewed in return, and often they reach optimal functions when they converge. The figure below describes the idea well.

These are essential components of RL, and there too many variations of how to calculate them. For example timings of updating them, whether to update them probabilistically or deterministically.  And whatever RL algorithm I talk about, how values and policies are updated will be of the best interest. Only briefly mentioning them would be just more and more confusing, so let me only briefly take examples of dynamic programming (DP).

Let’s consider DP on a simple grid map which I showed in the preface. This is a planning problem, and agents have a perfect model of the map, so they do not have to actually move around there. Agents can move on any cells except for blocks, and they get a positive rewards at treasure cells, and negative rewards at danger cells. With policy iteration, the agents can interactively update policies and values of all the states of the map. The chart below shows how policies and values of cells are updated.

You do not necessarily have to calculate policies every iteration, and this case of DP is called value iteration. But as the chart below suggests, value iteration takes more time to converge.

I am going to much more precisely explain the differences of values and policies in DP tasks in the next article.

(3) “Exploration” or “exploitation”

RL agents are not explicitly supervised by the correct answers of each behavior. They just receive rough signals of “good” or “bad.” One of the most typical failed cases of RL is that agents can be myopic. I mean, once agents find some actions which constantly give good reward, they tend to miss other actions which produce better rewards more effectively. One good way of avoiding this is adding some exploration, that is taking some risks to discover other actions.

I mentioned multi-armed bandit problems are simple setting of RL problems. And they also help understand trade-off of exploration and exploitation. In a multi-armed bandit problem, an agent chooses which slot machine to run every time step. Each slot machine gives out coins, or rewards r with a probability of p. The number of trials is limited, so the agent has to find the machine which gives out coins the most efficiently within the limited number of trials. In this problem, the key is the balance of trying to find other effective slot machines and just trying to get as much coins as possible with the machine which for now seems to be the best. This is trade-off of “exploration” or “exploitation.” One simple way to implement exploration and exploitation trade-off is ɛ-greedy algorithm. This is quite simple: with a probability of \epsilon, agents just randomly choose actions which are not thought to be the best then.

*Casino owners are not so stupid. It is designed so that you would lose in the long run, and before your “exploration” is complete, you will be “exploited.”

Let’s take a look at a simple simulation of a multi-armed bandit problem. There are two “casinos,” I mean sets of slot machines. In casino A, all the slot machines gives out the same reward 1, thus agents only need to find the machine which is the most likely to gives out more coins. But casino B is not simple like that. In this casino, slot machines with small odds give higher rewards.

I prepared four types of “multi-armed bandits,” I mean octopus agents. Each of them has each value of \epsilon, and the \epsilons reflect their “curiosity,” or maybe “how inconsistent they are.” The graphs below show the average reward over 1000 simulations. In each simulation each agent can try slot machines 250 times in total. In casino A, it seems the agent with the curiosity of \epsilon = 0.3 gets the best rewards in a short term. But in the long run, more stable agent whose \epsilon is 0.1, get more rewards. On the other hand in casino B, No on seems to make outstanding results.

*I wold not concretely explain how values of each slot machines are updated in this article. I think I am going to explain multi-armed bandit problems with Monte Carlo tree search in one of upcoming articles to explain the algorithm of AlphaGo/AlphaZero.

(4)”Achievement” or “estimation”

The last pair of keywords is “achievement” or “estimation,” and it might be better to instead see them as a comparison of “Monte Carlo” and “temporal-difference (TD).” I said RL algorithms often approximate Bellman equation based on data an agent has collected. Agents moving around in environments can be viewed as sampling data from the environment. Agents sample data of states, actions, and rewards. At the same time agents constantly estimate the value of each state. Thus agents can modify their estimations of values using value calculated with sampled data. This is how agents make use of their “experiences” in RL. There are several variations of when to update estimations of values, but roughly they are classified to Monte Carlo and Temporal-difference (TD). Monte Carlo is based on achievements of agents after one episode or actions. And TD is more of based on constant estimation of values at every time step. Which approach is to take depends on tasks but it seems many major algorithms adopt TD types. But I got an impression that major RL algorithms adopt TD, and also it is said evaluating actions by TD has some analogies with how brain is “reinforced.” And above all, according to the book by Sutton and Barto “If one had to identify one idea as central and novel to reinforcement learning, it would undoubtedly be temporal-difference (TD) learning.” And an intermediate idea, between Monte Carlo and TD, also can be formulated as eligibility trace.

In this article I have briefly covered all the topics I am planning to explain in this series. This article is a start of a long-term journey of studying RL also to me. Any feedback on this series, as posts or  emails, would be appreciated. The next article is going to be about dynamic programming, which is a major way for solving planning problems. In contexts of RL, dynamic programming is solved by repeatedly applying Bellman equation on values of states of a model of an environment. Thus I think it is no exaggeration to say dynamic programming is the backbone of RL algorithms.

Appendix

The code I used for the multi-armed bandit simulation. Just copy and paste them on Jupyter Notebook.

* I make study materials on machine learning, sponsored by DATANOMIQ. I do my best to make my content as straightforward but as precise as possible. I include all of my reference sources. If you notice any mistakes in my materials, including grammatical errors, please let me know (email: yasuto.tamura@datanomiq.de). And if you have any advice for making my materials more understandable to learners, I would appreciate hearing it.

The Basics of Logistic Regression in Data Science

Data science is a field that is growing by leaps and bounds. A couple decades ago, using a machine learning program to make predictions about datasets was the purview of science fiction. Today, all you need is a computer, some solid programming, and a bit of patience, and you, too, can have your own digital Zoltar.

Okay, it’s not really telling the future, but it does give you the ability to predict some future events, as long as those events fall within the data the system already has. These predictions fall into two categories: linear regression and logistic regression.

Today we’re going to focus on the latter. What is logistic regression in data science, and how can it help data scientists and analysts solve problems?

What Is Logistic Regression?

First, what is logistic regression, and how does it compare to its linear counterpart?

Logistic regression is defined as “a statistical analysis method used to predict a data value based on prior observations of a data set.” It is valuable for predicting the result if it is dichotomous, meaning there are only two possible outcomes.

For example, a logistic regression system could use its data set to predict whether a specific team will win a game, based on their previous performance and the performance of their competitors because there are only two possible outcomes — a win or a loss.

Linear regression, on the other hand, is better suited for continuous output or situations where there are more than two possible outcomes. A traffic prediction model would use linear regression. In these situations, no matter how much data the program has, there are always variables that can throw a wrench in the works.

This isn’t just a case of “go” or “no go,” like you might see with a rocket launch. A company using these predictive models to schedule deliveries will need to be able to compensate for those variables. Linear regression gives them the flexibility to do that.

Logistic Regression in Data Analysis

If you broke down the expression of logistic regression on paper, it would look something like this:

The left side of the equation is called a logit, while the right side represents the odds, or the probability of success vs. failure.

It seems incredibly complicated, but when you break it down and feed it into a machine learning algorithm, it provides a great number of benefits. For one, it’s simple — in relative terms — and doesn’t generate a lot of variance because, at the end, no matter how much data you feed a logistic regression system, there are only going to be two possible outcomes.

In addition to providing you with a “yes” or “no” answer, these systems can also provide the probability for each potential outcome. The downside of logistic regression systems is that they don’t function well if you feed them too many different variables. They will also need an additional translator system to convert non-linear features to linear ones.

Applications of Logistic Regression

The potential applications for logistic regression are nearly limitless. But if you find yourself struggling to picture where you might use this data analysis tool, here are a few examples that might help you.

Organizations can use logistic regression for credit scoring. While this might seem like it’s outside the scope of this particular type of programming because there are multiple credit scores a person might have, when you break it down to ones and zeros, there are usually only two possible outcomes where credit is concerned — approved or denied.

There are a number of potential applications for logistic regression in medicine as well. When it comes to testing for a specific condition, there are usually only two results — “yes” or “no.” Either the patient has the condition, or they don’t. In this case, it may be necessary to program in a third option — a null variable — that trips when there isn’t enough information available for a particular patient to make an accurate diagnostic decision.

Even text editing can benefit from logistic regression. Plug in a dictionary, and let it loose on a piece of text. These programs aren’t going to create masterpieces or even fix editing mistakes because they lack the programming to understand things like context and tone, but they are invaluable for spelling mistakes. Again, this brings us back to the binary of 1’s and 0’s — either a word is spelled correctly, according to the dictionary definition, or it isn’t.

If dichotomous outcomes are the goal of your data analysis system, logistic regression is going to be the best tool in your toolbox.

Breaking Down the Basics

A lot goes into the creation of a machine learning or predictive analysis tool, but understanding the difference between linear and logistic regression can make that process a bit simpler. Start by understanding what the program will do, then choose your regression form appropriately.

Why Your Data Science Team Needs Separate Testing, Validation & Training Sets

Automated testing of machine learning models can help to dramatically reduce the amount of time and effort that your team has to dedicate to debugging them. Not applying these techniques properly, however, could potentially do a great deal of harm if the process is completely unmonitored and doesn’t adhere to a list of best practices. Some tests can be applied to models after the training stage is over while others should be applied directly to test the assumptions that the model is operating under.

Traditionally, it’s proven somewhat difficult to test machine learning models because they’re very complex containers that often play host to a number of learned operations that can’t be clearly decoupled from the underlying software.. Conventional software can be broken up into individual units that each accomplish a specific task. The same can’t be said of ML models, which are often solely the product of training and therefore can’t be decomposed into smaller parts.

Testing and evaluating the data sets that you use for training could be the first step in unraveling this problem.

Monitoring Data Sets in a Training Environment

ML testing is very different from testing application software because anyone performing checks on ML models will find that they’re attempting to test something that is probabilistic as opposed to deterministic. An otherwise perfect model could occasionally make mistakes and still be considered the best possible model that someone could develop. Engineers working on a spreadsheet or database program wouldn’t be able to tolerate even the slightest rounding errors, but it’s at least somewhat acceptable to find the occasional flaw in the output of a program that processes data by way of learned responses. The level of variance will differ somewhat depending on the tasks that a particular model is being trained to accomplish, but it may always be there regardless.

As a result, it’s important to at least examine the initial data that’s being used to train ML models. If this data doesn’t accurately represent the kind of information that a real-world environment would thrust onto a model, then said model couldn’t ever hope to perform adequately when such input is finally given. Decent input specifications will help to ensure that the model comes away with a somewhat accurate representation of natural variability in whatever industry it’s performing a study in.

Pure performance measurements can come from essentially any test set, but data scientists will normally want to specify the hyperparameters of their model to provide a clear metric by which to judge performance while taking said measurements. Those who consistently use one model over another solely for its performance on a particular test set may end up fitting test sets to models to find something that performs exactly as they want it to.

Those who are working with smaller data sets will need to find some way to evaluate them in spite of their diminutive size.

Managing a Smaller Set of Data Safely

Those working with particularly large data sets have typically gone with 60-20-20 or 80-10-10 splits. This has helped to strike a decent balance between the competing needs of reducing potential bias while also ensuring that the simulations run fast enough to be repeated several times over.

Those working with a smaller data set might find that it simply isn’t representative enough, but for whatever reason it isn’t possible to increase the amount of information put into the test set. Cross-validation might be the best option for those who find themselves in this sort of situation. This is normally used by those in the applied ML field to compare and select models since it’s relatively easy to understand.

K-fold cross-validation algorithms are often used to estimate the skill of a particular ML model on new data irrespective of the size of the data in question. No matter what method you decide to try, though, your team needs to keep the concepts of testing and validation data separate when training your ML model. When you square these off in a training data vs. test data free-for-all, the results should come out something like this:

  • Test sets are essentially examples that are only ever used to judge the performance of a classifier that’s been completely specified.
  • Validation sets are deployed when data scientists are tuning the parameters of a classifier. You might start using a validation set to find the total number of hidden units that exist in a predefined neural network.
  • Training sets are used exclusively for learning. Many experts will define these as sets that are designed to fit the parameters of the initial classifier.

Segmenting testing, validation and training sets might not seem natural to those who are used to relying on one long inclusive data set in order to ensure that their ML models work in any scenario. Nevertheless, it’s vital to have them separated as much as possible. Test data management should always be part of your QA workflows. On top of this, it’s important to keep an eye on how a model responds as it learns from the data even if it does appear that accuracy increases over time. This is because there are several high-quality insights an operator can derive from the learning process.

Taking a Closer Look at Weights During the Training Process

An ideal model will enjoy lower losses and a higher degree of accuracy over time, which is often more than enough to please the data scientists that develop them. However, you can learn more by taking a close look at what areas are receiving the heaviest weights during training. A buggy piece of code could produce outcomes where different potential choices aren’t given different weights. Alternatively, it could be that they’re not really stacked against one another at all. In these cases, the overall results might end up looking realistic when they’re actually errant. Finding bugs in this way is especially important in a world where ML agents are being used to debug conventional software applications.

Taking a closer look at the weights themselves can help specialists to discover these problems before a model ever makes its way out into the wild. Debugging ML models as though they were application software will never work simply because so many aspects of their neural networks come from exclusively learned behaviors that aren’t possible to decompose into something that could be mapped on a flowchart. However, it should be possible to detect certain types of problems by paying close attention to these weights.

Developing any piece of software takes quite a bit of time, and the fact that ML models have to be trained means that they’ll often take even longer. Give yourself enough lead time and you should find that your testing, validation and training sets split evenly into different neat packages that make the process much simpler.

My elaborate study notes on reinforcement learning

I will not tell you why, but all of a sudden I was in need of writing an article series on Reinforcement Learning. Though I am also a beginner in reinforcement learning field. Everything I knew was what I learned from one online lecture conducted in a lazy tone in my college. However in the process of learning reinforcement learning, I found a line which could connect the two dots, one is reinforcement learning and the other is my studying field. That is why I made up my mind to make an article series on reinforcement learning seriously.

To be a bit more concrete, I imagine that technologies in our world could be enhanced by a combination of reinforcement learning and virtual reality. That means companies like Toyota or VW might come to invest on visual effect or video game companies more seriously in the future. And I have been actually struggling with how to train deep learning with cgi, which might bridge the virtual world and the real world.

As I am also a beginner in reinforcement learning, this article series would a kind of study note for me. But as I have been doing in my former articles, I prefer exhaustive but intuitive explanations on AI algorithms, thus I will do my best to make my series as instructive and effective as existing tutorial on reinforcement learning.

This article is going to be composed of the following contents.

In this article I would like to share what I have learned about RL, and I hope you could get some hints of learning this fascinating field. In case you have any comments or advice on my “study note,” leaving a comment or contacting me via email would be appreciated.