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Abstract:We consider the task of properly PAC learning decision trees with queries. Recent work of Koch, Strassle, and Tan showed that the strictest version of this task, where the hypothesis tree $T$ is required to be optimally small, is NP-hard. Their work leaves open the question of whether the task remains intractable if $T$ is only required to be close to optimal, say within a factor of 2, rather than exactly optimal. We answer this affirmatively and show that the task indeed remains NP-hard even if $T$ is allowed to be within any constant factor of optimal. More generally, our result allows for a smooth tradeoff between the hardness assumption and the inapproximability factor. As Koch et al.'s techniques do not appear to be amenable to such a strengthening, we first recover their result with a new and simpler proof, which we couple with a new XOR lemma for decision trees. While there is a large body of work on XOR lemmas for decision trees, our setting necessitates parameters that are extremely sharp, and are not known to be attainable by existing XOR lemmas. Our work also carries new implications for the related problem of Decision Tree Minimization.

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Abstract:We propose a simple generalization of standard and empirically successful decision tree learning algorithms such as ID3, C4.5, and CART. These algorithms, which have been central to machine learning for decades, are greedy in nature: they grow a decision tree by iteratively splitting on the best attribute. Our algorithm, Top-$k$, considers the $k$ best attributes as possible splits instead of just the single best attribute. We demonstrate, theoretically and empirically, the power of this simple generalization. We first prove a {\sl greediness hierarchy theorem} showing that for every $k \in \mathbb{N}$, Top-$(k+1)$ can be dramatically more powerful than Top-$k$: there are data distributions for which the former achieves accuracy $1-\varepsilon$, whereas the latter only achieves accuracy $\frac1{2}+\varepsilon$. We then show, through extensive experiments, that Top-$k$ outperforms the two main approaches to decision tree learning: classic greedy algorithms and more recent "optimal decision tree" algorithms. On one hand, Top-$k$ consistently enjoys significant accuracy gains over greedy algorithms across a wide range of benchmarks. On the other hand, Top-$k$ is markedly more scalable than optimal decision tree algorithms and is able to handle dataset and feature set sizes that remain far beyond the reach of these algorithms.

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Abstract:We prove that it is NP-hard to properly PAC learn decision trees with queries, resolving a longstanding open problem in learning theory (Bshouty 1993; Guijarro-Lavin-Raghavan 1999; Mehta-Raghavan 2002; Feldman 2016). While there has been a long line of work, dating back to (Pitt-Valiant 1988), establishing the hardness of properly learning decision trees from random examples, the more challenging setting of query learners necessitates different techniques and there were no previous lower bounds. En route to our main result, we simplify and strengthen the best known lower bounds for a different problem of Decision Tree Minimization (Zantema-Bodlaender 2000; Sieling 2003). On a technical level, we introduce the notion of hardness distillation, which we study for decision tree complexity but can be considered for any complexity measure: for a function that requires large decision trees, we give a general method for identifying a small set of inputs that is responsible for its complexity. Our technique even rules out query learners that are allowed constant error. This contrasts with existing lower bounds for the setting of random examples which only hold for inverse-polynomial error. Our result, taken together with a recent almost-polynomial time query algorithm for properly learning decision trees under the uniform distribution (Blanc-Lange-Qiao-Tan 2022), demonstrates the dramatic impact of distributional assumptions on the problem.

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Abstract:We show how any PAC learning algorithm that works under the uniform distribution can be transformed, in a blackbox fashion, into one that works under an arbitrary and unknown distribution $\mathcal{D}$. The efficiency of our transformation scales with the inherent complexity of $\mathcal{D}$, running in $\mathrm{poly}(n, (md)^d)$ time for distributions over $\{\pm 1\}^n$ whose pmfs are computed by depth-$d$ decision trees, where $m$ is the sample complexity of the original algorithm. For monotone distributions our transformation uses only samples from $\mathcal{D}$, and for general ones it uses subcube conditioning samples. A key technical ingredient is an algorithm which, given the aforementioned access to $\mathcal{D}$, produces an optimal decision tree decomposition of $\mathcal{D}$: an approximation of $\mathcal{D}$ as a mixture of uniform distributions over disjoint subcubes. With this decomposition in hand, we run the uniform-distribution learner on each subcube and combine the hypotheses using the decision tree. This algorithmic decomposition lemma also yields new algorithms for learning decision tree distributions with runtimes that exponentially improve on the prior state of the art -- results of independent interest in distribution learning.

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Abstract:We establish new hardness results for decision tree optimization problems, adding to a line of work that dates back to Hyafil and Rivest in 1976. We prove, under randomized ETH, superpolynomial lower bounds for two basic problems: given an explicit representation of a function $f$ and a generator for a distribution $\mathcal{D}$, construct a small decision tree approximator for $f$ under $\mathcal{D}$, and decide if there is a small decision tree approximator for $f$ under $\mathcal{D}$. Our results imply new lower bounds for distribution-free PAC learning and testing of decision trees, settings in which the algorithm only has restricted access to $f$ and $\mathcal{D}$. Specifically, we show: $n$-variable size-$s$ decision trees cannot be properly PAC learned in time $n^{\tilde{O}(\log\log s)}$, and depth-$d$ decision trees cannot be tested in time $\exp(d^{\,O(1)})$. For learning, the previous best lower bound only ruled out $\text{poly}(n)$-time algorithms (Alekhnovich, Braverman, Feldman, Klivans, and Pitassi, 2009). For testing, recent work gives similar though incomparable bounds in the setting where $f$ is random and $\mathcal{D}$ is nonexplicit (Blais, Ferreira Pinto Jr., and Harms, 2021). Assuming a plausible conjecture on the hardness of Set-Cover, we show our lower bound for learning decision trees can be improved to $n^{\Omega(\log s)}$, matching the best known upper bound of $n^{O(\log s)}$ due to Ehrenfeucht and Haussler (1989). We obtain our results within a unified framework that leverages recent progress in two lines of work: the inapproximability of Set-Cover and XOR lemmas for query complexity. Our framework is versatile and yields results for related concept classes such as juntas and DNF formulas.

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Abstract:We investigate the computational efficiency of multitask learning of Boolean functions over the $d$-dimensional hypercube, that are related by means of a feature representation of size $k \ll d$ shared across all tasks. We present a polynomial time multitask learning algorithm for the concept class of halfspaces with margin $\gamma$, which is based on a simultaneous boosting technique and requires only $\textrm{poly}(k/\gamma)$ samples-per-task and $\textrm{poly}(k\log(d)/\gamma)$ samples in total. In addition, we prove a computational separation, showing that assuming there exists a concept class that cannot be learned in the attribute-efficient model, we can construct another concept class such that can be learned in the attribute-efficient model, but cannot be multitask learned efficiently -- multitask learning this concept class either requires super-polynomial time complexity or a much larger total number of samples.

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Abstract:We design an algorithm for finding counterfactuals with strong theoretical guarantees on its performance. For any monotone model $f : X^d \to \{0,1\}$ and instance $x^\star$, our algorithm makes \[ {S(f)^{O(\Delta_f(x^\star))}\cdot \log d}\] queries to $f$ and returns {an {\sl optimal}} counterfactual for $x^\star$: a nearest instance $x'$ to $x^\star$ for which $f(x')\ne f(x^\star)$. Here $S(f)$ is the sensitivity of $f$, a discrete analogue of the Lipschitz constant, and $\Delta_f(x^\star)$ is the distance from $x^\star$ to its nearest counterfactuals. The previous best known query complexity was $d^{\,O(\Delta_f(x^\star))}$, achievable by brute-force local search. We further prove a lower bound of $S(f)^{\Omega(\Delta_f(x^\star))} + \Omega(\log d)$ on the query complexity of any algorithm, thereby showing that the guarantees of our algorithm are essentially optimal.

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Abstract:The authors recently gave an $n^{O(\log\log n)}$ time membership query algorithm for properly learning decision trees under the uniform distribution (Blanc et al., 2021). The previous fastest algorithm for this problem ran in $n^{O(\log n)}$ time, a consequence of Ehrenfeucht and Haussler (1989)'s classic algorithm for the distribution-free setting. In this article we highlight the natural open problem of obtaining a polynomial-time algorithm, discuss possible avenues towards obtaining it, and state intermediate milestones that we believe are of independent interest.

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Abstract:Using the framework of boosting, we prove that all impurity-based decision tree learning algorithms, including the classic ID3, C4.5, and CART, are highly noise tolerant. Our guarantees hold under the strongest noise model of nasty noise, and we provide near-matching upper and lower bounds on the allowable noise rate. We further show that these algorithms, which are simple and have long been central to everyday machine learning, enjoy provable guarantees in the noisy setting that are unmatched by existing algorithms in the theoretical literature on decision tree learning. Taken together, our results add to an ongoing line of research that seeks to place the empirical success of these practical decision tree algorithms on firm theoretical footing.

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Abstract:We study a fundamental question concerning adversarial noise models in statistical problems where the algorithm receives i.i.d. draws from a distribution $\mathcal{D}$. The definitions of these adversaries specify the type of allowable corruptions (noise model) as well as when these corruptions can be made (adaptivity); the latter differentiates between oblivious adversaries that can only corrupt the distribution $\mathcal{D}$ and adaptive adversaries that can have their corruptions depend on the specific sample $S$ that is drawn from $\mathcal{D}$. In this work, we investigate whether oblivious adversaries are effectively equivalent to adaptive adversaries, across all noise models studied in the literature. Specifically, can the behavior of an algorithm $\mathcal{A}$ in the presence of oblivious adversaries always be well-approximated by that of an algorithm $\mathcal{A}'$ in the presence of adaptive adversaries? Our first result shows that this is indeed the case for the broad class of statistical query algorithms, under all reasonable noise models. We then show that in the specific case of additive noise, this equivalence holds for all algorithms. Finally, we map out an approach towards proving this statement in its fullest generality, for all algorithms and under all reasonable noise models.

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