Fine-Grained Distribution-Dependent Learning Curves


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Learning curves plot the expected error of a learning algorithm as a function of the number of labeled samples it receives from a target distribution. They are widely used as a measure of an algorithm's performance, but classic PAC learning theory cannot explain their behavior. As observed by Antos and Lugosi (1996 , 1998), the classic `No Free Lunch' lower bounds only trace the upper envelope above all learning curves of specific target distributions. For a concept class with VC dimension $d$ the classic bound decays like $d/n$, yet it is possible that the learning curve for \emph{every} specific distribution decays exponentially. In this case, for each $n$ there exists a different `hard' distribution requiring $d/n$ samples. Antos and Lugosi asked which concept classes admit a `strong minimax lower bound' -- a lower bound of $d'/n$ that holds for a fixed distribution for infinitely many $n$. We solve this problem in a principled manner, by introducing a combinatorial dimension called VCL that characterizes the best $d'$ for which $d'/n$ is a strong minimax lower bound. Our characterization strengthens the lower bounds of Bousquet, Hanneke, Moran, van Handel, and Yehudayoff (2021), and it refines their theory of learning curves, by showing that for classes with finite VCL the learning rate can be decomposed into a linear component that depends only on the hypothesis class and an exponential component that depends also on the target distribution. As a corollary, we recover the lower bound of Antos and Lugosi (1996 , 1998) for half-spaces in $\mathbb{R}^d$. Finally, to provide another viewpoint on our work and how it compares to traditional PAC learning bounds, we also present an alternative formulation of our results in a language that is closer to the PAC setting.
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