In a typical supervised learning problem we have a fixed volume of training data with which to fit a model. Imagine, instead, we have a constant stream of data. Now, we could dip into this stream and take a sample from which to build a static model. But let’s also imagine that, from time to time, there is a change in the observations arriving. Ideally we want a model that automatically adapts to changes in the data stream and updates its own parameters. This is sometimes called “online learning.”
We’ve looked at a Bayesian approach to this before in Adaptively Modelling Bread Prices in London Throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Bayesian methods come with significant computational overhead because one must fit and continuously updated a joint probability distribution over all variables. Today, let’s look at a more lightweight solution called stochastic gradient descent.
The data
We imagine a continuous stream of data. For today’s artificial example, we have 300 sequential observations in pairs. The first 100 observations shows a certain linear relationship between & . Then something happens and the next 100 observations are different: and are now related in a different way. Finally, there is another change resulting in 100 more observations that are different again:
# prepare python %pylab inline import numpy as np from sklearn.datasets import make_regression from mpl_toolkits.mplot3d import Axes3D # Create four populations of 100 observations each pop1_X, pop1_Y = make_regression(n_samples=100, noise=20, n_informative=1, n_features=1, random_state=1, bias=0) pop2_X, pop2_Y = make_regression(n_samples=100, noise=20, n_informative=1, n_features=1, random_state=1, bias=100) pop3_X, pop3_Y = make_regression(n_samples=100, noise=20, n_informative=1, n_features=1, random_state=1, bias=100) # Stack them together pop_X = np.concatenate((pop1_X,pop2_X,pop3_X)) pop_Y = np.concatenate((pop1_Y, 2 * pop2_Y, 2 * pop3_Y)) # Add intercept to X pop_X = append(np.vstack(np.ones(len(pop_X))),pop_X,1) # convert Y's into proper column vectors pop_Y = np.vstack(pop_Y) ### plot mycmap = cm.brg fig = plt.figure(figsize(6,6), dpi=1600) plt.subplots_adjust(hspace=.5) gridsize = (1,1) ax0 = plt.subplot2grid(gridsize,(0,0)) sc = ax0.scatter(pop_X[:,1], pop_Y, s=100, alpha=.4, c=range(len(pop_X)), cmap=mycmap) plt.colorbar(sc, ax=ax0)
The blue, red and green observations each show different linear relationships between and : we might say that are draw from different populations. We want our model to automatically detect and adapt to each population as it appears in our data stream. That is, we want it to fit a line through the blue observations. Then, when the red observations start arriving, we want our line to adjust to pass through them. Finally, the line should adapt to the green observations when they hit the data stream.
Before we can tackle that, let’s do a quick refresher on gradient descent:
Gradient descent
Gradient descent is a method of searching for model parameters which result in the best fitting model. There are many, many search algorithms, but this one is quick and efficient for many sorts of supervised learning models.
Let’s take the simplest of simple regression models for predicting y: . Our model has two parameters – , the intercept, and , the coefficient for – and we want to find the values which produce the best fitting regression line.
How do we know whether one model fits better than another? We calculate the error or cost of the predictions. For regression models, the most common cost function is mean squared error:
The cost function quantifies the error for any given and . Since it is squared, it will take the form of an inverted parabola. Let’s visualise what it looks like for the first 100 observations in our dataset:
## Specify prediction function def fx(theta, X): return np.dot(X, theta) ## Specify cost function def fcost(theta, X, y): return (1./2*len(X)) * sum((np.vstack(fx(theta,X))  y)**2) ## Specify a range of possible a and b a_possible = asarray(range(40,60,1)) # theta1 could be the same: b_possible = asarray(range(0,140,1)) # create meshgrid X, Y = np.meshgrid(a_possible, b_possible) # calculate cost of each combination of a,b z = dstack([X.flatten(),Y.flatten()])[0] j = np.array([(fcost(z[i], pop_X[0:100], pop_Y[0:100])) for i in range(len(z))]) J = j.reshape(shape(X)) ## plot fig = plt.figure(figsize(12,6)) plt.subplots_adjust(hspace=.5) ax = fig.add_subplot(121, projection='3d') ax.plot_surface(X, Y, J, cmap=cm.coolwarm) ax.view_init(azim=295, elev=30) ax.set_xlabel('$\\alpha$') ax.set_ylabel('$\\beta$') ax = fig.add_subplot(122) ax.contourf(X, Y, J, cmap=cm.coolwarm) ax.set_xlabel('$\\alpha$') ax.set_ylabel('$\\beta$')
At the bottom (or minima) or the parabola is the lowest possible cost. We want to find the and which correspond to that minima.
The idea of gradient descent is to take small steps down the surface of the parabola until we reach the bottom. The gradient of gradient descent is the gradient of the cost function, which we find by taking the partial derivative of the cost function with respect to the model coefficients. Steps:
 For the current value of and , calculate the cost and the gradient of the cost function at that point
 Update the values of and by taking a small step towards the minima. This means, subtracting some fraction of the gradient from them. The formulae are:
Steps 1 & 2 are repeated until one is satisfied that the model is not getting any better (cost isn’t decreasing much with each step).
The learning rate parameter controls the size of the steps. This is a parameter which we must choose. There is some art in choosing a good learning rate, for if it is too large or too small then it can prevent the algorithm from finding the minima.
Let’s briefly see it in action – we’ll just do five steps. Then we can move on to talk about how we can use this technique for online learning.
## parameters n_learning_rate = 0.25 ## Specify prediction function def fx(theta, X): return np.dot(X, theta) ## Specify cost function def fcost(theta, X, y): return (1./2*len(X)) * sum((np.vstack(fx(theta,X))  y)**2) ## Specify function to calculate gradient at a given theta def gradient(theta, X, y): grad_theta = (1./len(X)) * sum(np.multiply(np.vstack(fx(theta, X))  y, X),axis=0) return grad_theta ## Specify starting values for alpha and beta theta = [0,0] ## Run 5 iterations of batch gradient descent, recording model parameters and costs arraytheta = np.array(theta) arraycost = np.array(fcost(theta, pop_X[0:100], pop_Y[0:100])) for i in range(5): theta = theta  n_learning_rate * gradient(theta, pop_X[0:100], pop_Y[0:100]) arraytheta = np.vstack([arraytheta, theta]) ### Plot fig = plt.figure(figsize(14,6)) plt.subplots_adjust(hspace=.5) gridsize = (1,2) ax0 = plt.subplot2grid(gridsize,(0,0)) ax0.scatter(pop_X[0:100,1], pop_Y[0:100], s=100, alpha=.2, c='red') xrangex = np.linspace(3,3,50) for i in range(0, len(arraytheta)): yrangey = arraytheta[i,0] + arraytheta[i,1] * xrangex ax0.plot(xrangex, yrangey, c='blue') ax0.text(3.5, arraytheta[i,0] + arraytheta[i,1] * 3, "Step " + str(i), color='blue', ha="center", va="center", bbox = dict(ec='1',fc='1')) # plot movement through costed parameter space ax1 = plt.subplot2grid(gridsize,(0,1)) ax1.contourf(X, Y, J, cmap=cm.coolwarm) ax1.set_xlabel('$\\alpha$') ax1.set_ylabel('$\\beta$') ax1.set_title('Trajectory of gradient descent through cost function'); for i in arraytheta: plt.scatter(i[0],i[1],marker='x',color='black',s=25) plt.plot(arraytheta[:,0],arraytheta[:,1], '', c='black', alpha=0.5)
Left chart: see how the regression line is gradually finding its way to fitting the shape of the data? Right chart: the gradient descent algorithm moves toward lower cost values for and .
Stochastic gradient descent for adaptive modelling
The gradient descent we’ve just done is called batch gradient descent. That’s because at each step we calculate the cost across the entire training dataset. This isn’t going to work for online learning, since we don’t have a finite training dataset – we have a continuous stream of observations.
The solution is to run an update step with every passing observation. This is called stochastic gradient descent. It looks like this:
## parameters n_learning_rate = 0.1 # learning rate paramenter ## Specify prediction function def fx(theta, X): return np.dot(X, theta) ## specify cost function def fcost(theta, X, y): return (1./2*len(X)) * sum((fx(theta,X)  y)**2) ## specify function to calculate gradient at a given theta  returns a vector of length(theta) def gradient(theta, X, y): grad_theta = (1./len(X)) * np.multiply((fx(theta, X))  y, X) return grad_theta ### DO stochastic gradient descent # starting values for alpha & beta theta = [0,0] # record starting theta & cost arraytheta = np.array([theta]) arraycost = np.array([]) # feed data through and update theta; capture cost and theta history for i in range(0, len(pop_X)): # calculate cost for theta on current point cost = fcost(theta, pop_X[i], pop_Y[i]) arraycost = np.append(arraycost, cost) # update theta with gradient descent theta = theta  n_learning_rate * gradient(theta, pop_X[i], pop_Y[i]) arraytheta = np.vstack([arraytheta, theta]) #### plot fig = plt.figure(figsize(12,6), dpi=1600) plt.subplot(121) plt.scatter(pop_X[:,1], pop_Y, s=100, alpha=.2, c=range(len(pop_X)), cmap=mycmap) # plot line for every 20th theta onto chart n=len(pop_X) colnums = [int(i) for i in np.linspace(0,256,n)] lineColours = mycmap(colnums) xrangex = np.linspace(3,3,50) for i in range(0, len(pop_X), 20): yrangey = arraytheta[i,0] + arraytheta[i,1] * xrangex plt.plot(xrangex, yrangey, c=lineColours[i], label = "Step " + str(i)) plt.legend(bbox_to_anchor=(1.05,1),loc=2)
Remember that our dataset contains 100 blue observations then 100 red observations then 100 green observations, with each colour signifying a different population that has a different relationship between and . See that the regression line gradually adjusts as the populations change. The coefficients and are updated after each observation using the gradient descent algorithm.
The speed of adaptation is parametrised by the learning rate. The choice of learning rate is quite important. We are allowing every passing observation to adjust our model fit. If we make the learning rate too large, then the model will quickly adapt to changes in populations but it will also be susceptible to noise and outliers. At worst, it could sway about erratically. If we make the learning rate too small, then our model will adapt slowly to any changes in population. This is a classic bias/variance tradeoff dilemma.
It is interesting to plot the error (cost). In the following chart, for each datapoint I have plotted the prediction error. As one expects, the error spikes at points 100 and 200: these are the points at which the population of arriving observations suddenly changes. Also see the error rapidly decline as the gradient descent mechanism adapts the regression model to the new circumstances:
plt.plot(arraycost)
Concluding notes
Stochastic gradient descent is a nifty, computationally cheap method for adaptive supervised learning in an online environment.
This has been a very idealised illustration. A couple of things I glossed over which would present a challenge to somebody who was implementing this in real life:

What is the correct learning rate? How fast or slow should the model adapt to changes? Intuitively we expect that this should depend on the type of changes that must be adapted to. Do they come on gradually? Is there a lot of noise which we do not want the model to adjust to? It may be very difficult to know a priori what the best learning rate is, since we are designing the model to adapt to changes in the data stream which we presuably haven’t witnessed.

What is the correct form of the model? By which I mean: what variables should be included and what, if any, transformations should be applied to those variables? We’ve seen the stohastic gradient descent method will adjust model coefficients to adapt to the data, but it cannot add or remove coefficients from the model, nor can it transform variables to adapt to changes in relationships. For example, if there was initially a linear relationship between and which turned into a nonlinear relationship then our algorithm may not be able to adapt.
I tried to read this but I no understand :/