Reflections on AI

Supervised Machine Learning: Regression and Classification Andrew Ng

Sep 13, 2023 Source

It has been months since my last summary of AI-related content. I have certainly read more articles and listened to more interviews since then, but I noticed I was starting to experience diminishing returns with respect to how much I felt like I was learning. This tends to be a signal for me that I need to dig a bit deeper to start understanding the layer underneath all of the content I’ve been taking in.

I found myself getting excited at the idea of taking an actual course. I really haven’t done that since grad school! I didn’t spend much time trying to optimize for the best possible course for me given my educational background, interests, professional experience, etc. I figured no matter what, a starter course would include a lot of redundant information I already knew but would set me on a path towards a deeper understanding as long as I had the patience to stick with it.

After a very short search, I settled on a Machine Learning Specialization series of courses on Coursera. The courses are taught by Andrew Ng, a name I already recognized from some of the self-guided learning I had been doing for the previous several months. As of right now, I have completed the first course in the series, called “Supervised Machine Learning: Regression and Classification”; and I am in the middle of the second course, called “Advanced Learning Algorithms”.

I was a math minor in college, so much of the content of the first course felt like a review of concepts I learned 20+ years ago. It actually made me a bit nostalgic! I remember doing linear regression in high school: given a set of points, find the best-fit line by minimizing the sum of squared distances from the points to the line defined by a linear formula. This course covered the same ground but from a programming lens, which was just fine by me.

My explanation of the topics covered, to check my understanding the Feynman way:

Regression and classification

Regression is the process of producing a model for making numerical predictions given a known data set. In the case of linear regression, the idea is to find the terms in the linear formula y = mx + b (specifically m and b, called parameters) that will produce the most accurate predictions for y given x.

Classification, in contrast, produces categorical predictions, e.g. “yes” or “no” for whether a tumor is malignant; or “dog”, “cat” etc. for identifying the subject of a photo.

Loss function

The best-fit line through a set of points is the one that minimizes the sum of squared distances between the line and the points, using the least squares method. This is a special case of regression as a general concept, where a model is defined by some parameters and those parameters are optimized to minimize the “loss” of each of its predictions, i.e. how far off they are from known correct values.

In linear regression, the model would be the formula defining the line. The parameters would be m (slope of the line) and b (y-intercept), which are all you need to define a straight line in a 2-dimensional space. And finally the loss function is the sum of the squared distances between the points in the data set and the corresponding points on the line (i.e. the ones with the same x input values).

So in plain English, the loss function is a way of asking for any given model, input, and known correct output, “How good was the model at producing this output from this input?”

Gradient descent

In regression, you produce a model to make predictions by minimizing the loss function. Gradient descent is an algorithm for how to actually do that. It is basically making small changes to the parameters of a model until you’ve found a set of values that minimize the cost (sum of losses) for an input data set.

In order to achieve the “descent” part, you need to take the derivative of the loss function with respect to each parameter. This gives you a slope. You make a small adjustment to each parameter in the direction of its respective slope. Then you calculate the cost with this new set of parameter values and make sure it has decreased.

The algorithm involves repeating this process until the cost isn’t changing significantly anymore. This indicates that you’ve reached a local minimum of the cost function, which means you’ve identified optimal values for all of the parameters of your model.

Sigmoid function

The sigmoid function provides an alternative loss function for classification problems and is used in logistic regression. This is a type of classification where the possible values for a data point are binary, i.e. true or false. Logistic regression can produce probabilistic predictions or confidence levels, e.g. the probability of passing an exam based on hours spent studying.

Example Sigmoid function

Visually, the sigmoid function makes a smooth S-shaped curve between 0 and 1 on the y-axis. This provides a model which can produce probabilities or confidence levels in something being true or false based on the value of x.

Rather than the least squares method used in linear regression, the loss for a given prediction is essentially the distance between the confidence level provided by the model and the true value. For example, if the model predicts with 95% confidence that a value will be true and it is true, the loss is 0.05. If the model predicts with 95% confidence that a value will be true and it is false, the loss is 0.95.


I understand the premise behind normalization but I’m honestly a little fuzzy on the math.

For a model that takes multiple types of input (“features”), if the values of those inputs have very different magnitudes, it is helpful to transform them to have similar magnitudes. As an example, if one set of features falls within the range 1-100, and another set of features falls within the range 10,000-1,000,000, you could take the second set and multiply by 0.001 so that the ranges are closer together, and then reverse that transformation after optimizing the model.

What I don’t totally understand is why this is helpful. Visually, it makes sense as a way to plot data in a more comprehensible way. I think normalization allows for gradient descent to work more effectively on a model with multiple parameters. I am not sure if this is truly the only way to achieve that or if an alternate technique might be to use different values for alpha (rate of descent) for different parameters.


As with normalization, the ideas behind regularization are also a bit blurry to me.

If you have a model with a large number of parameters, it is possible that through gradient descent you will arrive at a model that overfits the training data, i.e. it fits the data a bit too perfectly and then ends up performing worse than expected on newer data. A really unscientific way of thinking about this in my mind is that the model becomes “a little too close” to its training data, which hurts its ability to generalize.

Regularization essentially forces the weights of parameters down so that they have less influence on the model’s predictions.

What is strange to me about regularization is that it feels like making a model more complex in order to make it simpler. The simpler thing to do in my mind would be to reduce the number of parameters in the model. But I think the idea behind regularization is that you still want your parameters to sort of affect the model’s predictions, just not too much. It feels a bit to me like just fiddling around with data.

I probably need to go back and learn more about this!