# Getting some (algorithmic) SAT-isfaction

How can you possibly solve a mission-critical problem with millions of variables—when the worst-case computational complexity of every known algorithm for that problem is exponential in the number of variables?

SAT (Satisfiability) solvers have seen dramatic orders-of-magnitude performance gains for many problems through algorithmic improvements over the last couple of decades or so. The SAT problem—finding an assignment of Boolean variables that makes a given Boolean expression true—represents the archetypal NP-complete problem and in the general case is intractable.

However, for many practical problems, solutions can be found very efficiently by use of modern methods. This “killer app” of computer science, as described by Donald Knuth, has applications to many areas, including software verification, electronic design automation, artificial intelligence, bioinformatics, and planning and scheduling.

Its uses are surprising and diverse, from running billion dollar auctions to solving graph coloring problems to computing solutions to Sudoku puzzles. As an example, I’ve included a toy code below that uses SMT, a relative of SAT, to find the English language suffix rule for regular past tense verbs (“-ed”) from data.

When used as a machine learning method, SAT solvers are quite different from other methods such as neural networks. SAT solvers can for some problems have long or unpredictable runtimes (though MAXSAT can sometimes relax this restriction), whereas neural networks have essentially fixed inference cost (though looping agent-based models do not).

On the other hand, answers from SAT solvers are always guaranteed correct, and the process is interpretable; this is currently not so for neural network-based large language models.

To understand better how to think about this difference in method capabilities, we can take a lesson from the computational science community. There, it is common to have a well-stocked computational toolbox of both slow, accurate methods and fast, approximate methods.

In computational chemistry, ab initio methods can give highly accurate results by solving Schrödinger’s equation directly, but only scale to limited numbers of atoms. Molecular dynamics (MD), however, relies more on approximations, but scales efficiently to many more atoms. Both are useful in different contexts. In fact, the two methodologies can cross-pollenate, for example when ab initio calculations are used to devise force fields for MD simulations.

A lesson to take from this is, it is paramount to find the best tool for the given problem, using any and all means at one’s disposal.

The following are some of my favorite general references on SAT solvers:

It would seem that unless P = NP, commonly suspected to be false, the solution of these kinds of problems for any possible input is hopelessly beyond reach of even the world’s fastest computers. Thankfully, many of the problems we care about have an internal structure that makes them much more solvable (and likewise for neural networks). Continued improvement of SAT/SMT methods, in theory and implementation, will greatly benefit the effective solution of these problems.

### A toy example: find the English past tense suffix rule using Z3

```import csv
import z3

def char2int(c): return ord(c) - ord('a')

def int2char(i): return chr(i + ord('a'))

# Access the language data from the file.
with open('eng_cols.txt', newline='') as csvfile:
table = [row for row in reader]

nrow, ncol = len(table), len(table[0])

# Identify which columns of input table have stem and targeted word form.
stem_col, form_col = 0, 1

# Calculate word lengths.
nstem = [len(table[i][stem_col]) for i in range(nrow)]
nform = [len(table[i][form_col]) for i in range(nrow)]

# Length of suffix being sought.
ns = 2

# Initialize optimizer.
solver = z3.Optimize()

# Define variables to identify the characters of suffix; add constraints.
var_suf = [z3.Int(f'var_suf_{i}') for i in range(ns)]

for i in range(ns):
solver.add(z3.And(var_suf[i] >= 0, var_suf[i] < 26))

# Define variables to indicate whether the given word matches the rule.
var_m = [z3.Bool(f'var_m_{i}') for i in range(nrow)]

# Loop over words.
for i in range(nrow):

# Constraint on number of characters.
constraints = [nform[i] == nstem[i] + ns]

# Constraint that the form contains the stem.
for j in range(nstem[i]):
constraints.append(
table[i][stem_col][j] == table[i][form_col][j]
if j < nform[i] else False)

# Constraint that the end of the word form matches the suffix.
for j in range(ns):
constraints.append(
char2int(table[i][form_col][nform[i]-1-j]) == var_suf[j]
if j < nform[i] else False)

# var_m[i] is the "and" of all these constraints.

# Seek suffix that maximizes number of matches.
count = z3.Sum([z3.If(var_m[i], 1, 0) for i in range(nrow)])
solver.maximize(count)

# Run solver, output results.
if solver.check() == z3.sat:
model = solver.model()
suf = [model[var_suf[i]] for i in range(ns)]
print('Suffix identified: ' +
''.join(list([int2char(suf[i].as_long())
for i in range(ns)]))[::-1])
print('Number of matches: ' + str(model.evaluate(count)) +
' out of ' + str(nrow) + '.')

var_m_values = [model[var_m[i]] for i in range(nrow)]

print('Matches:')
for i in range(nrow):
if var_m_values[i]:
print(table[i][stem_col], table[i][form_col])
```

# The search for the perfect prompt

Anyone with more than casual experience with ChatGPT knows that prompt engineering is a thing. Minor or even trivial changes in a chatbot prompt can have significant effects, sometimes even dramatic ones, on the output [1]. For simple requests it may not make much difference, but for detailed requests it could matter a lot.

Industry leaders said they thought this would be a temporary limitation. But we are now a year and a half into the GPT-4 era, and it’s still a problem. And since the number of possible prompts has scaling that is exponential in the prompt length, it can sometimes be hard to find a good prompt given the task.

One proposed solution is to use search procedures to automate the prompt optimization / prompt refinement process. Given a base large language model (LLM) and an input (a prompt specification, commonly with a set of prompt/answer pair samples for training), a search algorithm seeks the best form of a prompt to use to elicit the desired answer from the LLM.

This approach is sometimes touted [2] as a possible solution to the problem. However, it is not without  limitations.

A main one is cost. With this approach, one search for a good prompt can take many, many trial-and-error invocations of the LLM, with cost measured in dollars compared to the fraction of a cent cost of a single token of a single prompt. I know of one report of someone who does LLM prompting with such a tool full time for his job, at cost of about \$1,000/month (though, for certain kinds of task, one might alternatively seek a good prompt “template” and reuse that across many near-identical queries, to save costs).

This being said, it would seem that for now (depending on budget) our best option for difficult prompting problems is to use search-based prompt refinement methods. Various new tools have come out recently (for example, [3-6]). The following is a report on some of my (very preliminary) experiences with a couple of these tools.

### PromptAgent

The first is PromptAgent [5]. It’s a research code available on GitHub. The method is based on Monte Carlo tree search (MCTS), which tries out multiple chains of modification of a seed prompt and pursues the most promising. MCTS can be a powerful method, being part of the AlphaGo breakthrough result in 2016.

I ran one of the PromptAgent test problems using GPT-4/GPT-3.5 and interrupted it after it rang up a couple of dollars in charges. Looking at the logs, I was somewhat amazed that it generated long detailed prompts that included instructions to the model for what to pay close attention to, what to look out for, and what mistakes to avoid—presumably based on inspecting previous trial prompts generated by the code.

Unfortunately, PromptAgent is a research code and not fully productized, so it would take some work to adapt to a specific user problem.

### DSPy

DSPy [6] on the other hand is a finished product available for general users. DSPy is getting some attention lately not only as a prompt optimizer but also more generally as a tool for orchestrating multiple LLMs as agents. There is not much by way of simple examples for how to use the code. The website does have an AI chatbot that can generate sample code, but the code it generated for me required significant work to get it to behave properly.

I ran with the MIPRO optimizer which is most well-suited to prompt optimization. My experience with running the code was that it generated many random prompt variations but did not do in-depth prompt modifications like PromptAgent. PromptAgent does one thing, prompt refinement, and must do it well, unlike DSPy which has multiple uses. DSPy would be well-served to have implemented more powerful prompt refinement algorithms.

### Conclusion

I would wholeheartedly agree that it doesn’t seem right for an LLM would be so dependent on the wording of a prompt. Hopefully, future LLMs, with training on more data and other improvements, will do a better job without need for such lengthy trial-and-error processes.

### References

[1]  “Quantifying Language Models’ Sensitivity to Spurious Features in Prompt Design or: How I learned to start worrying about prompt formatting,” https://openreview.net/forum?id=RIu5lyNXjT

[3]  “Evoke: Evoking Critical Thinking Abilities in LLMs via Reviewer-Author Prompt Editing,” https://openreview.net/forum?id=OXv0zQ1umU

[4] “Large Language Models as Optimizers,” https://openreview.net/forum?id=Bb4VGOWELI

[5] “PromptAgent: Strategic Planning with Language Models Enables Expert-level Prompt Optimization,” https://openreview.net/forum?id=22pyNMuIoa

[6] “DSPy: Compiling Declarative Language Model Calls into State-of-the-Art Pipelines,” https://openreview.net/forum?id=sY5N0zY5Od

# Hallucinations of AI Science Models

AlphaFold 2, FourCastNet and CorrDiff are exciting. AI-driven autonomous labs are going to be a big deal [1]. Science codes now use AI and machine learning to make scientific discoveries on the world’s most powerful computers [2].

It’s common practice for scientists to ask questions about the validity, reliability and accuracy of the mathematical and computational methods they use. And many have voiced concerns about the lack of explainability and potential pitfalls of AI models, in particular deep neural networks (DNNs) [3].

The impact of this uncertainty varies highly according to project. Science projects that are able to easily check AI-generated results against ground truth may not be that concerned. High-stakes projects like design of a multimillion dollar spacecraft with high project risks may ask about AI model accuracy with more urgency.

## Neural network accuracy

Understanding of the properties of DNNs is still in its infancy, with many as-yet unanswered questions. However, in the last few years some significant results have started to come forth.

A fruitful approach to analyzing DNNs is to see them as function approximators (which, of course, they are). One can study how accurately DNNs approximate a function representing some physical phenomenon in a domain (for example, fluid density or temperature).

The approximation error can be measured in various ways. A particularly strong measure is “sup-norm” or “max-norm” error, which requires that the DNN approximation be accurate at every point of the target function’s domain (“uniform approximation”). Some science problems may have a weaker requirement than this, such as low RMS or 2-norm error. However, it’s not unreasonable to ask about max-norm approximation behaviors of numerical methods [4,5].

An illuminating paper by Ben Adcock and Nick Dexter looks at this problem [6]. They show that standard DNN methods applied even to a simple 1-dimensional problem can result in “glitches”: the DNN as a whole matches the function well but at some points totally misapproximates the target function. For a picture that shows this, see [7].

Other mathematical papers have subsequently shed light on these behaviors. I’ll try to summarize the findings below, though the actual findings are very nuanced, and many details are left out here. The reader is advised to refer to the respective papers for exact details.

The findings address three questions: 1) how many DNN parameters are required to approximate a function well? 2) how much data is required to train to a desired accuracy? and 3) what algorithms are capable of training to the desired accuracy?

## How many neural network weights are needed?

How large does the neural network need to be for accurate uniform approximation of functions? If tight max-norm approximation requires an excessively large number of weights, then use of DNNs is not computationally practical.

Some answers to this question have been found—in particular, a result 1 is given in [8, Theorem 4.3; cf. 9, 10]. This result shows that the number of neural network weights required to approximate an arbitrary function to high max-norm accuracy grows exponentially in the dimension of the input to the function.

This dependency on dimension is no small limitation, insofar as this is not the dimension of physical space (e.g., 3-D) but the dimension of the input vector (such as the number of gridcells), which for practical problems can be in the tens [11] or even millions or more.

Sadly, this rules out the practical use of DNN for some purposes. Nonetheless, for many practical applications of deep learning, the approximation behaviors are not nearly so pessimistic as this would indicate (cp. [12]). For example, results are more optimistic:

• if the target function has a strong smoothness property;
• if the function is not arbitrary but is a composition of simpler functions;
• if the training and test data are restricted to a (possibly unknown) lower dimensional manifold in the high dimensional space (this is certainly the case for common image and language modeling tasks);
• if the average case behavior for the desired problem domain is much better than the worst case behavior addressed in the theorem;
• The theorem assumes multilayer perceptron and ReLU activation; other DNN architectures may perform better (though the analysis is based on multidimensional Taylor’s theorem, which one might conjecture applies also to other architectures).
• For many practical applications, very high accuracy is not a requirement.
• For some applications, only low 2-norm error is sufficient, (not low max-norm).
• For the special case of physics informed neural networks (PINNs), stronger results hold.

Thus, not all hope is lost from the standpoint of theory. However, certain problems for which high accuracy is required may not be suitable for DNN approximation.

## How much training data is needed?

Assuming your space of neural network candidates is expressive enough to closely represent the target function—how much training data is required to actually find a good approximation?

A result 2 is given in [13, Theorem 2.2] showing that the number of training samples required to train to high max-norm accuracy grows, again, exponentially in the dimension of the input to the function.

The authors concede however that “if additional problem information about [the target functions] can be incorporated into the learning problem it may be possible to overcome the barriers shown in this work.” One suspects that some of the caveats given above might also be relevant here. Additionally, if one considers 2-norm error instead of max-norm error, the data requirement grows polynomially rather than exponentially, making the training data requirement much more tractable. Nonetheless, for some problems the amount of data required is so large that attempts to “pin down” the DNN to sufficient accuracy become intractable.

## What methods can train to high accuracy?

The amount of training data may be sufficient to specify a suitable neural network. But, will standard methods for finding the weights of such a DNN be effective for solving this difficult nonconvex optimization problem?

A recent paper [14] from Max Tegmark’s group empirically studies DNN training to high accuracy. They find that as the input dimension grows, training to very high accuracy with standard stochastic gradient descent methods becomes difficult or impossible.

They also find second order methods perform much better, though these are more computationally expensive and have some difficulty also when the dimension is higher. Notably, second order methods have been used effectively for DNN training for some science applications [15]. Also, various alternative training approaches have been tried to attempt to stabilize training; see, e.g., [16].

## Prospects and conclusions

Application of AI methods to scientific discovery continues to deliver amazing results, in spite of lagging theory. Ilya Sutskever has commented, “Progress in AI is a game of faith. The more faith you have, the more progress you can make” [17].

Theory of deep learning methods is in its infancy. The current findings show some cases for which use of DNN methods may not be fruitful, Continued discoveries in deep learning theory can help better guide how to use the methods effectively and inform where new algorithmic advances are needed.

## Footnotes

1 Suppose the function to be approximated takes d inputs and has the smoothness property that all nth partial derivatives are continuous (i.e., is in Cn(Ω) for compact Ω). Also suppose a multilayer perceptron with ReLU activation functions must be able to approximate any such function to max-norm no worse than ε. Then the number of weights required is at least a fixed constant times (1/ε)d/(2n).

2 Let F be the space of all functions that can be approximated exactly by a broad class of ReLU neural networks. Suppose there is a training method that can recover all these functions up to max-norm accuracy bounded by ε. Then the number of training samples required is at least a fixed constant times (1/ε)d.

## References

[1] “Integrated Research Infrastructure Architecture Blueprint Activity (Final Report 2023),” https://www.osti.gov/biblio/1984466.

[2] Joubert, Wayne, Bronson Messer, Philip C. Roth, Antigoni Georgiadou, Justin Lietz, Markus Eisenbach, and Junqi Yin. “Learning to Scale the Summit: AI for Science on a Leadership Supercomputer.” In 2022 IEEE International Parallel and Distributed Processing Symposium Workshops (IPDPSW), pp. 1246-1255. IEEE, 2022, https://www.osti.gov/biblio/2076211.

[3] “Reproducibility Workshop: The Reproducibility Crisis in ML‑based Science,” Princeton University, July 28, 2022, https://sites.google.com/princeton.edu/rep-workshop.

[4] Wahlbin, L. B. (1978). Maximum norm error estimates in the finite element method with isoparametric quadratic elements and numerical integration. RAIRO. Analyse numérique, 12(2), 173-202, https://www.esaim-m2an.org/articles/m2an/pdf/1978/02/m2an1978120201731.pdf

[5] Kashiwabara, T., & Kemmochi, T. (2018). Maximum norm error estimates for the finite element approximation of parabolic problems on smooth domains. https://arxiv.org/abs/1805.01336.

[6] Adcock, Ben, and Nick Dexter. “The gap between theory and practice in function approximation with deep neural networks.” SIAM Journal on Mathematics of Data Science 3, no. 2 (2021): 624-655, https://epubs.siam.org/doi/10.1137/20M131309X.

[7] “Figure 5 from The gap between theory and practice in function approximation with deep neural networks | Semantic Scholar,” https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-gap-between-theory-and-practice-in-function-Adcock-Dexter/156bbfc996985f6c65a51bc2f9522da2a1de1f5f/figure/4

[8] Gühring, I., Raslan, M., & Kutyniok, G. (2022). Expressivity of Deep Neural Networks. In P. Grohs & G. Kutyniok (Eds.), Mathematical Aspects of Deep Learning (pp. 149-199). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781009025096.004, https://arxiv.org/abs/2007.04759.

[9] D. Yarotsky. Error bounds for approximations with deep ReLU networks. Neural Netw., 94:103–114, 2017, https://arxiv.org/abs/1610.01145

[10] I. Gühring, G. Kutyniok, and P. Petersen. Error bounds for approximations with deep relu neural networks in Ws,p norms. Anal. Appl. (Singap.), pages 1–57, 2019, https://arxiv.org/abs/1902.07896

[11] Matt R. Norman, “The MiniWeather Mini App,” https://github.com/mrnorman/miniWeather

[12] Lin, H.W., Tegmark, M. & Rolnick, D. Why Does Deep and Cheap Learning Work So Well?. J Stat Phys 168, 1223–1247 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10955-017-1836-5

[13] Berner, J., Grohs, P., & Voigtlaender, F. (2022). Training ReLU networks to high uniform accuracy is intractable. ICLR 2023, https://openreview.net/forum?id=nchvKfvNeX0.

[14] Michaud, E. J., Liu, Z., & Tegmark, M. (2023). Precision machine learning. Entropy, 25(1), 175, https://www.mdpi.com/1099-4300/25/1/175.

[15] Markidis, S. (2021). The old and the new: Can physics-informed deep-learning replace traditional linear solvers?. Frontiers in big Data, 4, 669097, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fdata.2021.669097/full

[16] Bengio, Y., Lamblin, P., Popovici, D., & Larochelle, H. (2006). Greedy layer-wise training of deep networks. Advances in neural information processing systems, 19,  https://papers.nips.cc/paper_files/paper/2006/hash/5da713a690c067105aeb2fae32403405-Abstract.html

[17] “Chat with OpenAI CEO and Co-founder Sam Altman, and Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mC-0XqTAeMQ&t=250s

# New Ways To Make Code Run Faster

The news from Meta last week is a vivid reminder of the importance of making code run faster and more power-efficiently. Meta intends to purchase 350,000 Nvidia H100 GPUs this year [1]. Assuming 350W TDP [2] and \$0.1621 per kW-h [3] average US energy cost, one expects a figure of \$174 million per year in electricity expenses just to power the GPUs (note this is only a rough estimate of the actual). For this and many other datacenter-scale and real-time critical applications, every bit of increased performance can be impactful.

Many approaches can be taken to making code run faster. The excellent book Hacker’s Delight contains many tricks for speeding up low-level code kernels [4]. Also, superoptimization techniques find the very fastest performing implementations of short, loop-free code kernels by exhaustive search [5].

Since exhaustive search scales exponentially with code size, it’s no surprise that other methods have been tried. Recent work with reinforcement learning reduces the number of scalar multiples needed for matrix products, discovering new Strassen-like algorithms [6]. Other work focuses more on hardware design; for example, PrefixRL optimizes chip design for targeted problems using reinforcement learning [7].

Finding the absolute fastest code for a given task is in general NP-complete [8]. This problem is out of reach for tractable solution by such methods. However, phenomenal progress in SAT/SMT solver efficiency for NP-complete problems has been made over the last 20 years (someone has even quipped, “NP is the new P” [9]). And indeed, these methods have been applied to superoptimization problems [10, 11]. Perhaps methodologies based on efficient SAT and SMT solvers will afford further opportunities for advancement.

The need for speed and power efficiency has become so acute that radically different non-von Neumann processors are being built [12], in some cases orders of magnitude more power efficient but restrictive in the problems they can solve. In the coming years we can expect to see a huge amount activity and developments on this important problem.

[1] “Meta will have 350,000 of Nvidia’s fastest AI GPUs by end of year, buying AMD’s MI300, too,” Tom’s Hardware, Jan. 19, 2024, https://www.tomshardware.com/tech-industry/meta-will-have-350000-of-nvidias-fastest-ai-gpus-by-end-of-year-buying-amds-mi300-too

[2] “NVIDIA H100 Tensor Core GPU Datasheet,” https://resources.nvidia.com/en-us-tensor-core/nvidia-tensor-core-gpu-datasheet

[3] “Electricity Rates for Every State in The U.S.,” https://www.energybot.com/electricity-rates/

[4] Henry Warren, “Hacker’s Delight,” 2nd Edition, 2012, https://web.archive.org/web/20190915025154/http://www.hackersdelight.org/

[5] “Superoptimization”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superoptimization

[6] Fawzi, A., Balog, M., Huang, A. et al. “Discovering faster matrix multiplication algorithms with reinforcement learning,” Nature 610, 47–53 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-05172-4

[7] Rajarshi Roy et al., “PrefixRL: Optimization of Parallel Prefix Circuits using Deep Reinforcement Learning,” https://arxiv.org/abs/2205.07000

[8] Hennessy, John L., and Thomas Gross. “Postpass code optimization of pipeline constraints.” ACM Transactions on Programming Languages and Systems (TOPLAS) 5, no. 3 (1983): 422-448.

[9] Arie Gurfinkel, “Algorithms for SAT,” https://ece.uwaterloo.ca/~agurfink/ece750t29/assets/pdf/02_SAT.pdf

[10] Abhinav Jangda and Greta Yorsh. 2017. “Unbounded superoptimization,” in Proceedings of the 2017 ACM SIGPLAN International Symposium on New Ideas, New Paradigms, and Reflections on Programming and Software (Onward! 2017). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 78–88. https://doi.org/10.1145/3133850.3133856

[11] Phitchaya Mangpo Phothilimthana, Aditya Thakur, Rastislav Bodik, and Dinakar Dhurjati. 2016. “GreenThumb: superoptimizer construction framework,” in Proceedings of the 25th International Conference on Compiler Construction (CC 2016). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 261–262. https://doi.org/10.1145/2892208.2892233

[12] “OpenAI Agreed to Buy \$51 Million of AI Chips From a Startup Backed by CEO Sam Altman,” Wired, Dec. 3, 2023, https://www.wired.com/story/openai-buy-ai-chips-startup-sam-altman/

# The IQ Test That AI Can’t Pass

Large language models have recently achieved remarkable test scores on well-known academic and professional exams (see, e.g., [1], p. 6). On such tests, these models are at times said to reach human-level performance. However, there is one test that humans can pass but every AI method known to have been tried has abysmally failed.

The Abstraction and Reasoning Corpus (ARC) benchmark [2] was developed by François Chollet to measure intelligence in performing tasks never or rarely seen before. We all do tasks something like this every day, like making a complicated phone call to correct a mailing address. The test is composed of image completion problems similar to Raven’s Progressive Matrices but more complex. Given images A, B and C, one must identify the image D such that the relationship “A is to B as C is to D” holds. Sometimes several examples of the A:B relationship are given.

The problem is hard because the relationship patterns between A and B that humans could easily identify (for example, image shrinking, rotating, folding, recoloring, etc.) might be many, many different things—more than can easily be trained for. By construction, every problem is qualitatively, unpredictably different, so the common approach of training on the training set doesn’t work. Instead, bonafide reasoning on a new kind of problem for each case is required.

Several competitions with prize money have encouraged progress on the ARC benchmark [3]. In these, each entrant’s algorithm must be tested against an unseen ARC holdout set. The leaderboard for the ARCathon 2023 challenge completed last month shows top score of 30 percent [4]; this is excellent progress on a very hard problem, but far from a perfect score or anything else resembling passing.

Ilya Sutskever has famously warned we shouldn’t bet against deep learning, and perhaps a future LLM will do much better on this benchmark. Others feel a new approach is needed, for example, from the burgeoning field of neurosymbolic methods. In any case, these results show at the present moment in this rapidly progressing field, we don’t seem to be anywhere close to strong forms of AGI, artificial general intelligence.

[1] OpenAI, “GPT-4 Technical Report,” https://cdn.openai.com/papers/gpt-4.pdf

[2] François Chollet, “On the Measure of Intelligence,” https://arxiv.org/abs/1911.01547

[3] “Abstraction and Reasoning Challenge,” https://www.kaggle.com/c/abstraction-and-reasoning-challenge

[4] “Winners – Lab42, “https://lab42.global/winners/

# The cold start problem

How do you operate a data-driven application before you have any data? This is known as the cold start problem.

We faced this problem all the time when I designed clinical trials at MD Anderson Cancer Center. We uses Bayesian methods to design adaptive clinical trial designs, such as clinical trials for determining chemotherapy dose levels. Each patient’s treatment assignment would be informed by data from all patients treated previously.

But what about the first patient in a trial? You’ve got to treat a first patient, and treat them as well as you know how. They’re struggling with cancer, so it matters a great deal what treatment they are assigned. So you treat them according to expert opinion. What else could you do?

Thanks to the magic of Bayes theorem, you don’t have to have an ad hoc rule that says “Treat the first patient this way, then turn on the Bayesian machine to determine how to treat the next patient.” No, you use Bayes theorem from beginning to end. There’s no need to handle the first patient differently because expert opinion is already there, captured in the form of prior distributions (and the structure of the probability model).

Each patient is treated according to all information available at the time. At first all available information is prior information. After you have data on one patient, most of the information you have is still prior information, but Bayes’ theorem updates this prior information with your lone observation. As more data becomes available, the Bayesian machine incorporates it all, automatically shifting weight away from the prior and toward the data.

The cold start problem for business applications is easier than the cold start problem for clinical trials. First of all, most business applications don’t have the potential to cost people their lives. Second, business applications typically have fewer competing criteria to balance.

What if you’re not sure where to draw your prior information? Bayes can handle that too. You can use Bayesian model selection or Bayesian model averaging to determine which source (or weighting of sources) best fits the new data as it comes in.

Once you’ve decided to use a Bayesian approach, there’s still plenty of work to do, but the Bayesian approach provides scaffolding for that work, a framework for moving forward.

# Something that bothers me about deep neural nets

Overfitting happens when a model does too good a job of matching a particular data set and so does a poor job on new data. The way traditional statistical models address the danger of overfitting is to limit the number of parameters. For example, you might fit a straight line (two parameters) to 100 data points, rather than using a 99-degree polynomial that could match the input data exactly and probably do a terrible job on new data. You find the best fit you can to a model that doesn’t have enough flexibility to match the data too closely.

Deep neural networks have enough parameters to overfit the data, but there are various strategies to keep this from happening. A common way to avoid overfitting is to deliberately do a mediocre job of fitting the model.

When it works well, the shortcomings of the optimization procedure yield a solution that differs from the optimal solution in a beneficial way. But the solution could fail to be useful in several ways. It might be too far from optimal, or deviate from the optimal solution in an unhelpful way, or the optimization method might accidentally do too good a job.

It a nutshell, the disturbing thing is that you have a negative criteria for what constitutes a good solution: one that’s not too close to optimal. But there are a lot of ways to not be too close to optimal. In practice, you experiment until you find an optimally suboptimal solution, i.e. the intentionally suboptimal fit that performs the best in validation.

# The big deal about neural networks

In their book Computer Age Statistical Inference, Brad Efron and Trevor Hastie give a nice description of neutral networks and deep learning.

The knee-jerk response [to neural networks] from statisticians was “What’s the big deal? A neural network is just a nonlinear model, not too different from many other generalizations of linear models.”

While this may be true, neural networks brought a new energy to the field. They could be scaled up and generalized in a variety of ways … And most importantly, they were able to solve problems on a scale far exceeding what the statistics community was used to. This was part computing scale expertise, part liberated thinking and creativity on the part of this computer science community.

After enjoying considerable popularity for a number of years, neural networks were somewhat sidelined by new inventions in the mid 1990’s. … Neural networks were passé. But then they re-emerged with a vengeance after 2010 … the reincarnation now being called deep learning.

# Quantifying uncertainty

The primary way to quantify uncertainty is to use probability. Subject to certain axioms that aim to capture common-sense rules for quantifying uncertainty, probability theory is essentially the only way. (This is Cox’s theorem.)

Other methods, such as fuzzy logic, may be useful, though they must violate common sense (at least as defined by Cox’s theorem) under some circumstances. They may be still useful when they provide approximately the results that probability would have provided and at less effort and stay away from edge cases that deviate too far from common sense.

There are various kinds of uncertainty, principally epistemic uncertainty (lack of knowledge) and aleatory uncertainty (randomness), and various philosophies for how to apply probability. One advantage to the Bayesian approach is that it handles epistemic and aleatory uncertainty in a unified way.

Blog posts related to quantifying uncertainty:

# Pros and cons of the term “data science”

I’ve resisted using the term “data science,” and enjoy poking fun at it now and then, but I’ve decided it’s not such a bad label after all.

Here are some of the pros and cons of the term. (Listing “cons” first seems backward, but I’m currently leaning toward the pro side, so I thought I should conclude with it.)

## Cons

The term “data scientist” is sometimes used to imply more novelty than is there. There’s not a great deal of difference between data science and statistics, though the new term is more fashionable. (Someone quipped that data science is statistics on a Mac.)

Similarly, the term data scientist is sometimes used as an excuse for ignorance, as in “I don’t understand probability and all that stuff, but I don’t need to because I’m a data scientist, not a statistician.”

The big deal about data science isn’t data but the science of drawing inferences from the data. Inference science would be a better term, in my opinion, but that term hasn’t taken off.

## Pros

Data science could be a useful umbrella term for statistics, machine learning, decision theory, etc. Also, the title data scientist is rightfully associated with people who have better computational skills than statisticians typically have.

While the term data science isn’t perfect, there’s little to recommend the term statistics other than that it is well established. The root of statistics is state, as in a government. This is because statistics was first applied to the concerns of bureaucracies. The term statistics would be equivalent to governmentistics, a historically accurate but otherwise useless term.