I am reading the useful Wikipedia entry on gradient boosting (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gradient_boosting), and try to understand how / why we can approximate the residuals by the steepest descent step (also called the pseudo-gradient). Can anyone give me the intuition on how the steepest descent is linked / similar to the residuals? Help much appreciated!

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1 Answer 1


Suppose we are in the following situation. We have some data $\{ x_i, y_i \}$, where each $x_i$ can be a number or vector, and we would like to determine a function $f$ that approximates the relationship $f(x_i) \approx y_i$, in the sense that the least squares error:

$$ \frac{1}{2} \sum_i (y_i - f(x_i))^2 $$

is small.

Now, the question enters of what we would like the domain of $f$ to be. A degenerate choice for the domain is just the points in our training data. In this case, we may just define $f(x_i) = y$, covering the entire desired domain, and be done with it. A round about way to arrive at this answer is by doing gradient descent with this discrete space as the domain. This takes a bit of a change in point of view. Let's view the loss as a function of the point true $y$ and the prediction $f$ (for the moment, $f$ is not a function, but just the value of the prediction)

$$ L(f; y) = \frac{1}{2} (y - f)^2 $$

and then take the gradient with respect to the prediction

$$ \nabla_f L(f; y) = f - y $$

Then the gradient update, starting from an initial value of $y_0$ is

$$ y_1 = y_0 - \nabla_f (y_0, y) = y_0 - (y_0 - y) = y $$

So we recover our perfect prediction in a gradient step with this setup, which is nice!

The flaw here is, of course, that we want $f$ to be defined at much more than just our training data points. To do this, we must make a few concessions, for we are not able to evaluate the loss function, or its gradient, at any points other than our training data set.

The big idea is to weakly approximate $\nabla L$.

Start with an initial guess at $f$, almost always a simple constant function $f(x) = f_0$, this is defined everywhere. Now generate a new working dataset by evaluating the gradient of the loss function at the training data, using the initial guess for $f$:

$$ W = \{ x_i, f_0 - y \} $$

Now approximate $\nabla L$ by fitting weak learner to $W$. Say we get the approximation $F \approx \nabla L$. We have gained an extension of the data $W$ across the entire domain in the form of $F(X)$, though we have lost precision at the training points, since we fit a small learner.

Finally, use $F$ in place of $\nabla L$ in the gradient update of $f_0$ over the entire domain:

$$ f_1(x) = f_0(x) - F(x) $$

We get out $f_1$, a new approximation of $f$, a bit better than $f_0$. Start over with $f_1$, and iterate until satisfied.

Hopefully, you see that what is really important is approximating the gradient of the loss. In the case of least squares minimization this takes the form of raw residuals, but in more sophisticated cases it does not. The machinery still applies though. As long as one can construct an algorithm for computing the loss and gradient of loss at the training data, we can use this algorithm to approximate a function minimizing that loss.

  • $\begingroup$ Yah, I think that's good. The only thing to note is that if you, for example, want to boost to minimize the binomial loss $$\sum_i y_i \log (p_i) + (1 - y_i) \log(1 - p_i)$$ then the gradient we expand is no longer related to the residuals in a natural way. $\endgroup$ Jul 24, 2015 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks Matthew. One thing that i am trying to get my head around. In the literature it is often stated that the model update is F(m+1) = F(m) + $\alpha_m*h(m)$, where h(m) is the weak learner. If i am thinking of a tree-based model - does it mean that for both regression and classification we acually practically update our prediction for a given datapoint by simple addition of the outcomes of the two models? does that also work if we are trying to binary classify this? or should the + sign not be interpreted so literally? $\endgroup$
    – Wouter
    Jul 24, 2015 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ The plus sign is quite literal. But for a tree based weak learners, the model predictions should be interpreted as the weighted average in the leaf, even in the case where the tree is fit to binomial data. Note though, that in boosting, we are usually not fitting to binomial data, we are fitting to the gradient of the likelihood evaluated at the prior stage's predictions, which will not be $0,1$ valued. $\endgroup$ Jul 24, 2015 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthewDrury I think in many literature, we are not direct update $f_1$ with $f_0-F(x)$, but with $f_0-\alpha*F(x)$, where $\alpha$ from 0 to 1 is a learning rate. $\endgroup$
    – Haitao Du
    Sep 3, 2016 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ @hxd1011 Yes, that's absolutely correct, and crucial for using gradient boosting successfully. $\endgroup$ Sep 3, 2016 at 16:21

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