I'm trying to understand how NMF is derived, and I got the basic idea of NMF, that is, it tries to approximate the original matrix $V$ with $WH$, where $V$ are non-negative, and $W,H$ are constrained to be non-negative.

Question 1

When I approach this problem, it's pretty intuitive for me that, I should try to minimize the reconstruction error, $$Err(W,H) = \min_{W,H}\|V-WH\|\,,$$ if say $Err(W,H)$ is the objective function, then I have a problem to define the constraints. How to constrain $W,H$ to be non-negative?

Question 2

The paper I'm reading, it doesn't take the reconstruction error as the objective function, instead it takes the perspective that NMF tries to reconstruct the original $V$ from $WH$ adding some Poisson noise (last 2 paragraphs of page 3).

This confuses me badly, why Poisson? What about Gaussian or gamma or beta?

Question 3

No matter what the objective function is, I think I can always solve the problem by gradient descent or newton's method, can I?

And the reason why the multiplicative update method proposed is because it has better speed than gradient descent?


1 Answer 1


Question 3 :

an important reason is that you want non-negative entires in your matrix. If performing classical gradient descent on your objective function, you face two problems :

  • The objective function is clearly non-convex in its variables. It is convex if either factor matrix is left constant, and successive optimisation of the factors will indeed cause the objective function to decrease securely, though this might be very slow. Classical gradient descent has absolutely no guarantees of converging though, and may be caught in highly suboptimal local extrema, or even diverge completely.
  • More importantly, gradient descent may cause your parameters to become negative if large enough steps are taken. This sort of also answers Question 1 : there is a priori no way of formalizing the positivity constraint and optimise classically.

Also, the update rules (as mentionned by the paper) allow to find a local optimum of the chosen objective function while remaining positive. I assume the local optimum is often good enough.

Question 2 : using a poisson model is convenient because the error terms are positive, and the likelihood is simple. The update rule is compatible with the resulting objective function and is simple to implement.

Question 1 : this is sort of answered above. The update rules ensure that positivity is conserved during training.

  • $\begingroup$ Why the error terms are positive? $\endgroup$
    – avocado
    May 14, 2014 at 10:41
  • $\begingroup$ Because the poisson distribution is positive $\endgroup$
    – Youloush
    May 14, 2014 at 12:11
  • $\begingroup$ I mean, we use $WH$ to approximate $V$, but the error could be negative or positive. $\endgroup$
    – avocado
    May 14, 2014 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ That would make no sense. If we know the "true" value $V$ is positive, then the error for $V_{ij}$ should be bounded below by $-V_{ij}$ but there is (obviously) no way to know this lower bound as it is precisely what we are estimating. The only safe lower bound to avoid getting negative values from training is zero. Hence the requirement for a positive error term. $\endgroup$
    – Youloush
    May 14, 2014 at 13:09

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