• Posted by Konstantin 26.09.2012 4 Comments

    The issues related to scientific publishing, peer-review and funding always make for popular discussion topics at conferences. In fact, the ongoing ECML PKDD 2012 had a whole workshop, where researchers could complain about discuss some of their otherwise interesting results that were hard or impossible to publish. The rejection reasons ranged from "a negative result" or "too small to be worthy of publication" to "lack of theoretical justification". The overall consensus seemed to be that this is indeed a problem, at least in the field of machine learning.

    The gist of the problem is the following. Machine learning relies a lot on computational experiments - empirically measuring the performance of methods in various contexts. The current mainstream methodology suggests that such experiments should primarily play a supportive role, either demonstrating a general theoretic statement, or simply measuring the exact magnitude of the otherwise obvious benefit. This, unfortunately, leaves no room for "unexpected" experimental results, where the measured behaviour of a method is either contradicting or at least not explained by the available theory. Including such results in papers is very difficult, if not impossible, as they get criticised heavily by the reviewers. A reviewer expects all results in the paper to make sense. If anything is strange, it should either be explained or would better be disregarded as a mistake. This is a natural part of the quality assurance process in science as a whole.

    Quite often, though, unexpected results in computational experiments do happen. They typically have little relevance to the main topic of the paper, and the burden of explaining them can be just too large for a researcher to pursue. It is way easier to either drop the corresponding measurement, or find a dataset that behaves "nicely". As a result, a lot of  relevant information about such cases never sees the light of day. Thus, again and again, other researchers would continue stumbling on similar unexpected results, but continue shelving them away.

    The problem would not be present if the researchers cared to, say, write up such results as blog posts or tech-reports in ArXiv, thus making the knowledge available. However, even formulating the unexpected discoveries in writing, let along go any deeper, is often regarded as a waste of time that won't get the researcher much (if any) credit. Indeed, due to how the scientific funding works nowadays, the only kind of credit that counts for a scientist is (co-)authoring a publication in a "good" journal or conference.

    I believe that with time, science will evolve to naturally accommodate such smaller pieces of research into its process (mini-, micro-, nano-publications?), providing the necessary incentives for the researchers to expose, rather than shelve their "unexpected" results. Meanwhile, though, other methods could be employed, and one of the ideas that I find interesting is the concept I'd call "co-authorship licensing".

    Instead of ignoring a "small", "insignificant", or an "unexpected" result, the researcher should consider publishing it as either a blog post or a short (yet properly written) tech report. He should then add an explicit requirement, that the material may be referred to, cited, or used as-is in a "proper" publication (a journal or a conference paper) with the condition that the author of the post must be included in the author's list of the paper.

    I feel there could be multiple benefits to such an approach. Firstly, it non-invasively addresses the drawbacks of the current science funding model. If being cited as a co-author is the only real credit that counts in the scientific world, why not use it explicitly and thus allow to effectively "trade" smaller pieces of research. Secondly, it enables a meaningful separation of work. "Doing research" and "publishing papers" are two very different types of activities. Some scientists, who are good at producing interesting experimental results or observations, can be completely helpless when it comes to the task of getting their results published. On the other hand, those, who are extremely talented in presenting and organizing results into high-quality papers, may often prefer the actual experimentation to be done by someone else. Currently, the two activities have to be performed by the same person or, at best, by the people working at the same lab. Otherwise, if the obtained results are not immediately "properly" published, there is no incentive for the researchers to expose them. "Co-authorship licensing" could provide this incentive, acting as an open call for collaboration at the same time. (In fact, the somewhat ugly "licensing" term could be replaced with a friendlier equivalent, such as "open collaboration invitation", for example. I do feel, though, that it is more important to stress that others are allowed to collaborate rather than that someone is invited to).

    I'll conclude with three hypothetical examples.

    • A Bachelor's student makes a nice empirical study of System X in his thesis, but has no idea how to turn this to a journal article. He publishes his work in ArXiv under "co-authorship license", where it is found by a PhD student working in this area, who was lacking exactly those results for his next paper.
    • A data miner at company X, as a side-effect of his work, ends up with a large-scale evaluation of learning algorithm Y on an interesting dataset. He puts those results up as a "co-authorship licensed" report. It is discovered by a researcher, who is preparing a review paper about algorithm Y and is happy to include such results.
    • A bioinformatician discovers unexpected behaviour of algorithm X on a particular dataset. He writes his findings up as a blog post with a "co-authorship license", where those are discovered by a machine learning researcher, who is capable of explaining the results, putting them in context, and turning into an interesting paper.

    It seems to me that without the use of "co-authorship licensing" the situations above would end in no productive results, as they do nowadays.

    Of course, this all will only make sense once many people give it a thought. Unfortunately, no one reads this blog 🙂

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  • Posted by Konstantin 03.09.2012 2 Comments

    For many people, the ability for learning and adaptation seems like something unique, extremely complicated and mysterious. Indeed, those are the abilities we almost exclusively associate with high levels of intelligence and knowledge. This is, however, an illusion. Although adaptive behaviour might indeed look complex, it is not necessarily driven by "intelligent" mechanisms. One of the best illustrations of this is a fully-fledged self-learning machine made from plain matchboxes.

    A Tic-Tac-Toe machine made by James Bridle

    A Tic-Tac-Toe machine by James Bridle

    The idea for such a machine was first introduced in 1960 by Donald Michie, who devised a simple self-learning algorithm for Tic-Tac-Toe (reminiscent of what is now known to be Reinforcement Learning). Due to lack of appropriate computing power, he implemented it "in hardware" using 300 or so matchboxes.

    The idea of the machine is simple. There is a matchbox corresponding to each game position, where the "computer" has to make a move. The matchbox contains colored beads, each color corresponding to a particular move. The decision is made by picking a random bead from the matchbox. Initially (when the machine is "untrained"), there is an equal number of beads of each color, and the machine thus makes equiprobably random turns. After each game, however, the machine is "punished" by removing beads, corresponding to losing turns, or "rewarded" by adding beads, corresponding to winning turns. Thus, after several games, the machine will adapt its strategy towards a winning one.

    The idea was popularized by Martin Gardner in one of his Scientific American articles (later published in the book "The Unexpected Hanging and Other Mathematical Diversions"). Gardner invented a simple game of  "Hexapawn", and derived a matchbox machine for it, which only required as little as 19 matchboxes. He also suggests in his article, however, to create a matchbox machine for "Mini-checkers" - checkers played on a 4x4 board. Ever since I saw this article some 20 or so years ago I was thinking of making one. This summer, while teaching a machine learning course in a summer school in Kiev, I actually made one. I could use it to both fulfil my ages-old desire as well as a teaching aid. You can make one too now, if you are interested.

    The Mini-checkers Machine

    The rules of mini-checkers are exactly like those of usual checkers, with three modifications:

    • The game is played on a 4x4 field. White is the first one to move. Machine plays for black.
    • Whenever both players get a King, the game immediately ends in a draw.
    • The King must always move to the furthest possible position in the chosen direction.

    To make the machine, you first have to buy and empty 24 matchboxes. Next, print out and stick the 24 game positions onto the boxes. Draw on each box all the possible black's moves as arrows using colored markers. Finally, for  each colored arrow, add 2 beads of the same color into the matchbox. That's it, your machine is ready to play.

    The Mini-checkers machine

    The Mini-checkers machine

    The game proceeds as already described: whenever the machine (the black player) has to make a decision (i.e. whenever it has to make a move and there is more than one possibility), find the matchbox with the current position depicted on it, shake it, and pick a random bead. This will tell you the decision of the machine. If the corresponding matchbox is empty, the machine forfeits. You should keep the matchboxes, corresponding to the moves that were made, open until the end of the game.

    Once the game is over, the machine is "taught":

    • If the machine won, do nothing.
    • If the game was a draw, remove the bead corresponding to the machine's last move from the matchbox, unless it was the last bead of that color in the box.
    • If the machine lost, remove all the beads, corresponding to the machine's last move, from the last matchbox.

    It takes about 30 games or so for the machine to actually learn to play well enough. Of course, a human would understand the strategy much earlier, but it's fun none the less.

    Playing with the machine will immediately lead you towards two important questions:

    • How efficient is the suggested learning procedure? Can it be improved and generalized?
    • How do you make a matchbox machine for a more complex game without having to manage thousands of matchboxes.

    As far as I know, contemporary machine learning has only partial answers to both of them.

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