Gradient Boosted Decision Trees

20 Jul 2020 - 3270 Words
From zero to gradient boosted decision trees
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What is a gradient boosted decision tree? 🤷‍♂️

This article is the fifth in a series covering fundamental machine learning algorithms. Each post will be split into two parts

  1. The idea and key concepts - Most people should be able to follow this section and learn how the algorithm works
  2. The maths - This is for the interested reader and will include detailed mathematical derivations followed by an implementation in Python


  • here if you missed From zero to Linear Regression
  • here if you missed From zero to Logistic Regression
  • here if you missed From zero to Decision Tree
  • here if you missed From zero to Random Forest

Great if you have already read these!

The idea and key concepts

In the last post we talked about underfitting, overfitting, bias and variance. We explained how a random forest uses the average output of multiple trees to reduce the chance of overfitting without introducing bias by oversimplifying (such as using only one tree but restricting the depth).

Gradient boosting is a machine learning technique for regression and classification where multiple models are trained sequentially with each model trying to learn the mistakes from the previous models. The individual models are known as weak learners and in the case of gradient boosted decision trees the individual models are decision trees.

In order to give intuition it is easiest to consider first the case of regression. Imagine we are again trying to predict house prices in a desirable area of north London. With training data that looks like the following

House size 🏠 Garden size 🌳 Garage? 🚙 True House Price 💰
1 1000 700 Garage £1m
2 770 580 No Garage £0.75m
3 660 200 Garage £0.72m

Initial prediction $f_0$

We can make an initial prediction for each of the house prices based on an initial model, let’s call this initial model $f_0$. Often this model is very simple - just using the mean of the target variable in the training data. The following table shows the initial predictions as well as the errors $e_1$ (also known as the residuals) defined for each sample as $e_1 = y - f_0$ where $y$ is the true value and $f_0$ is our initial prediction

True House Price 💰 Initial Prediction $f_0$ Error $e_1$
1 £1m £0.82m £(1m - 0.82) = £0.18m
2 £0.75m £0.82m £(0.75m - 0.82m) = -£0.07m
3 £0.72m £0.82m £(0.72m - 0.82m) = -£0.1m

Predicting the error

Our initial prediction isn’t very accurate as it is just the mean house price of the training data! In order to improve this we introduce another model $f_1$ trying to predict the error $e_1$ from the sample feature values. In gradient boosted decision trees this model is itself a decision tree. So now we can predict what the error $e_1$ will be for each sample using $f_1$

True House Price 💰 Initial Prediction $f_0$ Error $e_1$ Predicted Error $f_1$
1 £1m £0.82m £(1m - 0.82) = £0.18m £0.17m
2 £0.75m £0.82m £(0.75m - 0.82m) = -£0.07m £-0.09m
3 £0.72m £0.82m £(0.72m - 0.82m) = -£0.1m £-0.1m

Updating our prediction using the error prediction

For the first house our initial prediction $f_0$ was £0.82m (using the mean) and as we actually know the true value we can see this gave an error $e_1$ of 0.18m. We then trained $f_1$ - a decision tree - to predict the error $e_1$ for each sample. In practise this is only a prediction of the error so it wont be exactly equal, in this toy example our $f_1$ model predicted an error of £0.17m. We could now combine the two models into a new second prediction called $F_1$ by adding the predicted error $f_1$ to the initial prediction $f_0$ as in the table below

True House Price 💰 Initial Prediction $f_0$ Predicted Error $f_1$ Prediction $F_1 =f_0 + f_1$
1 £1m £0.82m £0.17m £0.99m
2 £0.75m £0.82m -£0.09m £0.73m
3 £0.72m £0.82m -£0.1m £0.71m

Additive model

Now we have a second prediction $F_1$ we can continue in a sequential manner, again calculating the error of our second prediction $e_2$ and training a tree $f_2$ to predict this second error. Then once again we add this second predicted error to the second prediction to get a third prediction $F_2 = F_1 + f_2$ and so on. As the models are summed together this approach is known as an aditive model. In general we have $$F_m = F_{m-1} + f_m$$ Where the next prediction $F_m$ is made up of the current prediction $F_{m-1}$ and the prediction of the error $f_m \sim e_m =y - F_{m-1}$ at this stage. In general the number of weak learners is a hyper parameter you have to choose.

learning rate

We can think of each individual weak learner $f_m$ as stepping our predictions closer to the true target values $y$. To reduce the variance and overfitting rather than stepping the whole predicted error we can instead add only a fraction of the step controlled by the learning rate. So rather than $$F_m = F_{m-1} + f_m$$ In gradient boosting we use $$F_m = F_{m-1} + (\text{learning rate}*f_m)$$ This process requires more steps but reduces the variance and overfitting overall.

Summary of the algorithm

  1. Make initial model $f_0$ (often the mean of y)
  2. Train decision tree model $f_1$ on the error $e_1 = y - f_0$ where y is the true value
  3. Calculate new prediction $F_1 = f_0 + \eta * f_1$ where $\eta$ is the learning rate
  4. Repeat 2, 3 as many times as chosen where in general
    1. Train model $f_m$ on the error $e_m = y - F_{m-1}$
    2. Calculate new prediction as $F_{m-1} + \eta * f_m$

In short gradient boosting uses an initial prediction and then sequentially updates this prediction by fitting a model to the error at that stage.

In the following section we explore the mathematical details and extend the algorithm to the classification setting. We also cover the intuition behind gradient boosting as gradient descent.

The maths

Why is it called gradient boosting?

In general in supervised learning we aim to find a model $F$ to fit the data such that the predicted value $\hat{y}_i$ for the $j$th training example $\mathbf{x}_i$ is approximately equal to the $j$th target value $y_i$ or equivalently

$$ \hat{y}_i=F(\mathbf{x}_i)\sim y_i \quad\forall j \in {1,\dots,n} $$

Where n is the number of training samples.

Equivalently we aim to minimise a loss function $\mathcal{L(y, \hat{y})}$ which tells us how badly the model $\hat{y}$ currently fits the data $y$.

In a parametric setting (e.g. logistic regression) the model can be written as

$$ \hat{y}_i=F_{\mathbf{\theta}}(\mathbf{x}_i) $$

Where the subscript $\mathbf{\theta}$ indicates the models dependence on the parameters. We can also write the loss in terms of $\mathbf{\theta}$ as $\mathcal{L(y, \hat{y}(\mathbf{\theta})})$. In this setting we update the model parameters using gradient descent. That is we iteratively update the model parameters by stepping the parameters in the direction of the negative gradient of the loss function with respect to the parameters (where $\eta$ is the learning rate).

$$ \mathbf{\theta}^{m+1} = \mathbf{\theta}^{m} - \eta* \frac{\partial\mathcal{L}}{\partial{\mathbf{\theta}^m}} $$

Instead of differentiating the loss with respect to $\mathbf{\theta}$ we can differentiate with respect to the prediction $\hat{y}$ directly. If we think about gradient descent ideally we would update $\hat{y}$ as follows to reduce the cost function

$$ \hat{y}_i \to \hat{y}_i - \eta\frac{\partial\mathcal{L}}{\partial{\hat{y}_i}} $$

Equivalently we update $F_{m-1}$ by adding another “delta model” $f_{m+1}$

$$ \hat{y}_i = F_m(\mathbf{x}_i) + f_{m+1}(\mathbf{x}_i) \quad\forall j \in {1,\dots,n} $$

Where $\eta$ is the learning rate and

$$ f_{m+1}(\mathbf{x}_i)= -\eta\frac{\partial\mathcal{L}}{\partial{\hat{y}_i}} $$

In practise we cannot set this delta model exactly so we train a model on the data to fit

$$ - \eta\frac{\partial\mathcal{L}}{\partial{\hat{y}_i}}$$

In general this gradient can be fitted with any model but gradient boosted decision trees use a decision tree - hence the name! Note each tree will have it’s own Loss $\mathcal{L}^{f_{m+1}}$ separate to the global loss $\mathcal{L}$.

Key Point

The gradient boosted decision tree is not trained on the residuals at each step. Rather it is trained on the negative gradient of the loss function evaluated using the prediction of the current step - which happens to be the residual for some common cost functions.


In the case of regression we define the loss function as the mean square error

$$ \mathcal{L}(\hat{y}) = \frac{1}{2n}\sum_{i=1}^{n}(y_i-\hat{y}_i)^2 $$ hence $$ -\eta\frac{\partial\mathcal{L}}{\partial{\hat{y}_i}} = \frac{\eta}{n}(y_i-\hat{y}_i) $$

How the process looks:

We fit $f_0(x)\sim y$ then $F_0(x) = f_0(x)$
We fit $f_1(x)\sim (y-F_0(x))$ then $F_1(x) = F_0(x) + \eta f_1(x)$
We fit $f_2(x)\sim (y-F_1(x))$ then $F_2(x) = F_1(x) + \eta f_2(x)$
We fit $f_3(x)\sim (y-F_2(x))$ then $F_3(x) = F_2(x) + \eta f_3(x)$

We fit $f_m(x)\sim (y-F_{m-1}(x))$ then $F_m(x) = F_{m-1}(x) + \eta f_m(x)$

Then predictions $\hat{y} = F_m(x)$

Binomial Classification

Suppose our iterative model was $\hat{y}_i = F_m(x_i)$ where the $\hat{y}_i$ directly represented the probability $x_i$ is in class 1. i.e. $P(x_i \in C_1)$ where $C_1$ represents class 1.

In this case the delta model doesn’t make sense as we would be directly adding to a probability value. As in logistic regression it is often the case to fit the model to a transformation of probability.

We define a model $$ \hat{y}\sim F(x) $$ where $$ \hat{p} = \frac{1}{1+e^{-\hat{y}}} $$ so $$ \hat{y} = \log\left(\frac{\hat{p}}{1-\hat{p}}\right) $$

where $\hat{p}$ represents the probability of being in class 1, $\hat{y}$ is sometimes known as the logit.

Note $\hat{p}\in[0,1],\quad \hat{y}\in(-\infty,\infty),\quad y\in{0,1}$

Hence in the classification setting the gradient boosted decision tree predicts $\hat{y}$ as a sum of multiple delta models. The probability values are then calculated by transforming $\hat{y}$ using the sigmoid function (a.k.a the expit function).

We will use the following fact later on

$$ \begin{align} \hat{p} &= \frac{1}{1+e^{-\hat{y}}} \quad so \\ \hat{p} &= \frac{e^{\hat{y}}}{e^{\hat{y}}+1} \quad so \\ 1 - \hat{p} &= \frac{e^{\hat{y}}+1 -e^{\hat{y}}}{e^{\hat{y}}+1} \quad so \\ \log\left(1 - \hat{p}\right) &= -\log\left(e^{\hat{y}}+1\right) \end{align} $$

In the case of classification we define the loss function as cross entropy and noting the previous fact we simplify the expression.

$$ \begin{align} \mathcal{L}(\hat{y}) &= \frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^{n}\left( -y_i\log(\hat{p}_i)-(1-y_i)\log(1-\hat{p}_i) \right)\\ &= \frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^{n}\left( -y_i\log(\hat{p}_i)+y_i\log(1-\hat{p}_i)-\log(1-\hat{p}_i) \right)\\ &= \frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^{n}\left( -y_i\log(\frac{\hat{p}_i}{1-\hat{p}_i})-\log(1-\hat{p}_i) \right)\\ &= \frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^{n}\left( -y_i\hat{y}_i+\log\left(e^{\hat{y}}+1\right) \right) \end{align} $$

In order to choose $f_{m+1}$ we fit to $-\eta\frac{\partial\mathcal{L}}{\partial{\hat{y}_i}}$

$$ \begin{align} \frac{\partial\mathcal{L}}{\partial{\hat{y}_i}} &= \frac{1}{n}\left(-y_i + \frac{e^{\hat{y}}}{e^{\hat{y}}+1} \right)\\ &= \frac{1}{n}\left(\hat{p}_i - y_i \right) \end{align} $$


$$ \begin{align} -\frac{\partial\mathcal{L}}{\partial{\hat{y}_i}} &= \frac{1}{n}\left(y_i - \hat{p}_i \right)\\ &= \frac{1}{n}\left(y_i - \sigma(\hat{y}_i) \right) \end{align} $$

where $\sigma$ is the sigmoid function. Note this is the residual again!

How the process looks again:

First define initial values $f_0(x) = \log\left(\frac{\sum{y_i\in C_1}}{\sum{y_i\notin C_1}}\right)$ then set $F_0(x) = f_0(x)$
We fit $f_1(x)\sim (y-\sigma(F_0(x)))$ then $F_1(x) = F_0(x) + \eta f_1(x)$
We fit $f_2(x)\sim (y-\sigma(F_1(x)))$ then $F_2(x) = F_1(x) + \eta f_2(x)$
We fit $f_3(x)\sim (y-\sigma(F_2(x)))$ then $F_3(x) = F_2(x) + \eta f_3(x)$
We fit $f_m(x)\sim (y-\sigma(F_{m-1}(x)))$ then $F_m(x) = F_{m-1}(x) + \eta f_m(x)$

Then predictions $\hat{p} = \sigma(F_m(x)$)

Multi class classification

In multi class classification where K is equal to the number of classes we have to define the model set up a little differently. We model the log of each class probability as as an additive model.

$$ \begin{align} \log(\hat{p}^1_i) &\sim F_1(x) = \hat{y}_i^1\\ \log(\hat{p}^2_i) &\sim F_2(x) = \hat{y}_i^2\\ &\vdots\\ \log(\hat{p}^K_i) &\sim F_K(x) = \hat{y}_i^K \end{align} $$

and we define

$$ \hat{p}^k_i = \frac{e^{F^k(x_i)}}{\sum_{j=1}^{K}e^{F^j(x_i)}} $$

Once again we use Cross entropy but for multi class setting

$$ \mathcal{L}(F^1,\dots,F^K) = -\frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^{n}\sum_{k=1}^{K}\mathbb{1}(y_i\in C^k)\log(\hat{p}_i^k) $$

Let $y^k$ be the indicator variable for class k, then

$$ \begin{align} &\mathcal{L}(F^1,\dots,F^K) = -\frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^{n}\sum_{k=1}^{K}y^k_i\log\left( \frac{e^{F^k(x_i)}}{\sum_{i=j}^{K}e^{F_j(x_i)}}\right)\\ &= -\frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^{n}\sum_{k=1}^{K}y^k_i\log\left( \frac{e^{\hat{y}_i^k}}{\sum_{j=1}^{K}e^{\hat{y}^j_i}}\right)\\ &= -\frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^{n}\sum_{k=1}^{K}\left( y^k_i\log\left(e^{\hat{y}^k_i}\right) - y^k_i \log\left(\sum_{j=1}^{K}e^{\hat{y}^j_i}\right) \right)\\ &= \frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^{n}\left( \log\left(\sum_{j=1}^{K}e^{\hat{y}^j_i}\right) - \sum_{k=1}^{K}y^k_i\hat{y}^k_i \right) \end{align} $$

Hence we see the negative gradient is again the

$$ \begin{align} -\frac{\partial\mathcal{L}}{\partial{\hat{y}^k_i}} &= \frac{1}{n}\left(y^k_i - \frac{e^{\hat{y}^k_i}}{\sum_{j=1}^{K}e^{\hat{y}^j_i}} \right)\\ &= \frac{1}{n}\left(y^k_i - \hat{p}^k_i \right) \end{align} $$

Note this is the residual again! Hence the process looks like the following:

We initialise $f_0$ as

$$ f_0(x)^k = \log\left(\frac{\sum{y_i\in C_k}}{\sum{y_i\notin C_k}}\right) $$

Then sequentially fit $f_1^k,f_2^k,\dots, f_m^k$ against the residuals for each class $k$ to calculate additive models $F_1^k,F_2^k,\dots, F_m^k$ such that $\forall k\in{1,\dots, K}$

$$ \begin{align} f_1^k(x)&\sim (y^k-\sigma_k(F_0^1,\dots,F_0^K))\\ F_1^k(x)&= F_0^k(x) + \eta f_1^k(x) \\ f_2^k(x)&\sim (y^k-\sigma_k(F_1^1,\dots,F_1^K))\\ F_2^k(x)&= F_1^k(x) + \eta f_2^k(x) \\ \quad&\vdots\\ f_m^k(x)&\sim (y^k-\sigma_k(F_{m-1}^1,\dots,F_{m-1}^K))\\ F_m^k(x)&= F_{m-1}^k(x) + \eta f_m^k(x)\\ \end{align} $$

Then the probability predictions $\hat{p}^k$ for class $k$ is defined as

$$ \hat{p}^k = \sigma_k(F_{m}^1,\dots,F_{m}^K) $$

Where $\sigma$ is the softmax function.

Python implementation

We will build the implementation in an object oriented fashion defining a class for the gradient boosted decision tree. For the full code (with doc strings) it’s on github here.

class GradientBoostedDecisionTree():

First we define the __init__ method on the class setting the various parameters for each tree as in the previous article.

def __init__(self,
    """Gradient boosted decision tree model

    The trees are grown sequentially and fitted to the negative 
    gradient of the cost function with respect to the raw predicted
    values at the previous stage. 

    Note I use the term raw_predictions as raw predicted values 
    must be transformed to find the probability estimates in the 
    case of classification.

    In practice these gradients are equal to the residual.

    The raw predictions for a stage are made by adding the new delta
    model (multiplied by the learning rate) to the raw predictions
    from the previous stage

    max_depth: int
        The maximum depth allowed when "growing" a tree
    min_samples_split: int
        The minimum number of samples required to allow a split at a
    min_samples_leaf: int
        The minimum number of samples allowed in a leaf. A split
        candidate leading to less samples in a node than the
        min_samples_leaf will be rejected
    n_classes: int, optional, default 2
        Number of classes in a classification setting. Ignored when
        self.is_classifier = False
    max_features: int, optional, default None
        If set to 'sqrt' then only a random subset of features are
        used to split at each node, the number of features used in
        this case is sqrt(n_features).
        Else all the features are considered when splitting at each
    is_classifier: bool, optional, default True
        Is the model used as part of a classification problem
        or a regression problem. Should be set to True if
        classification, False if regression
    n_trees: int, optional, default 10
        Number of trees, equivalently gradient steps
    learning_rate: float, optional, default 0.05
        The learning rate parameter controlling the gradient descent
        step size
    self.max_depth = max_depth
    self.min_samples_split = min_samples_split
    self.min_samples_leaf = min_samples_leaf
    self.n_classes = n_classes
    self.max_features = max_features
    self.is_classifier = is_classifier

    self.n_trees = n_trees
    self.learning_rate = learning_rate
    self.is_fitted = False
    self.trees_to_fit = 1 if n_classes <= 2 else n_classes
    self.trees = [
        [None for _ in range(self.trees_to_fit)]
        for _ in range(self.n_trees)]
    #  trees has shape (n_trees, n_classes)

The trees property is initialised with None values but has shape (n_trees, n_classes). During fitting these are replaced with the weak learners discussed above.

The best method to start with is the fit method.

def fit(self, X, y):
    if self.is_classifier:
        y = y.astype(int)
    self.init_f_0(X, y)
    prev_stage_raw_predictions = self.f_0_prediction(X)
    for stage in range(self.n_trees):
        negative_gradient = self.negative_gradient(
            y, prev_stage_raw_predictions)
        self.fit_stage(X, negative_gradient, stage=stage)
        delta_model = self.predict_delta_model(X, stage=stage)
        prev_stage_raw_predictions = prev_stage_raw_predictions + \
            (self.learning_rate * delta_model)

The fit method first trains an initial prediction $f_0$ using the init_f_0 method. Then the initial raw predictions $\hat{y}$ are calculated as f_0_prediction(X). I refer to $\hat{y}$ as raw predictions to distinguish between $\hat{y}$ and $\hat{p}$. The fit method then loops through for each gradient step, first calulating the negative gradient (i.e. the residual) using the negative_gradient method then fitting a delta model to the negative gradient using a call to the fit_stage method, then finally the raw predictions are updated using the delta model (calculated using the predict_delta_model method) and the learning rate.

We will now go through each of the helper methods in turn. Firstly we inspect the init_f_0 method.

def init_f_0(self, X, y):
    y = y.reshape(-1)
    if not self.is_classifier:
        self.regression_f_0_tree = self.get_tree(), y)
    if self.is_classifier and self.n_classes == 2:
        self.f_0 = np.log(y.sum() / (y.shape[0] - y.sum()))
    if self.is_classifier and self.n_classes > 2:
        self.f_0 = np.log(
            np.bincount(y, minlength=self.n_classes) / y.shape[0])[None, :]

The $f_0$ value is different for regression and classification. In the case of regression the initialisation is often just the mean of the target variable. In my implementation above I fitted a first tree model as $f_0$. In the case of classification (with two classes) the $f_0$ prediction is initialised as the logit of the average probability of success in the training data. For the extension to the multi class setting we initalise the kth class raw prediction as the log of the average probability of observing the kth class.

Having initialised the first model we use it to come up with an initial raw_prediction using the f_0_prediction method.

def f_0_prediction(self, X):
    n = X.shape[0]
    if not self.is_classifier:
        return self.regression_f_0_tree.predict(X).reshape(n, 1)
    if self.is_classifier and self.n_classes == 2:
        return np.repeat(self.f_0, n).reshape(n, 1)
    if self.is_classifier and self.n_classes > 2:
        return np.repeat(self.f_0, n, axis=0)

In the case of regression the $f_0$ prediction is made by calling the predict method of the regression_f_0_tree (fitted in the init_f_0 method). In the case of classification the constant f_0 values (again calculated in init_f_0) are repeated for each training example.

Next we look at the negative_gradient method used to return the negative gradient of the loss with respect to $\hat{y}$.

def negative_gradient(self, y, prev_stage_raw_predictions):
    if self.is_classifier and self.n_classes > 2:
        y = np.eye(self.n_classes)[y.reshape(-1)]
        y = y.reshape(y.shape[0], 1)
    return y - self.convert_raw_predictions(prev_stage_raw_predictions)

Again the negative_gradient method varies for regression and classification. In the case of multi class classification with more than two classes, the $y$ values are one hot encoded so $y$ is a matrix with shape (n, n_classes) where n is the number of training examples. The method returns the residuals between the true value $y$ and the prediction.

The prediction value is calculated by transforming the raw_predictions using the convert_raw_predictions method. For regression this method just returns the raw predictions, however for classification this returns the probabilities $\hat{p}$. As seen above in the mathematical details the raw_predictions are transformed into probabilities using the Sigmoid function in the case of two class classification, and the Softmax function in the case of three of more classes.

def convert_raw_predictions(self, raw_predictions):
    if not self.is_classifier:
        return raw_predictions
    if self.is_classifier and self.n_classes == 2:
        return expit(raw_predictions)
    if self.is_classifier and self.n_classes > 2:
        return np.exp(
            raw_predictions - logsumexp(raw_predictions, axis=1)[:, None])

Having initialised the raw predictions and calculated the gradient we then fit the next sequential weak learner ($f_n$) to the gradient using the fit_stage method. The stage here indicates what boosting stage we are training in order to keep track of the individual delta models.

def fit_stage(self, X, negative_gradient, stage=0):'Fitting stage {stage}')
    trees_to_fit = 1 if self.n_classes <= 2 else self.n_classes
    for class_k in range(trees_to_fit):
        target = negative_gradient[:, class_k]
        tree = self.get_tree(), target)
        self.trees[stage][class_k] = tree

The fit_stage method fits weak learners with the params as defined in the __init__. In the case of regression and two class classification the method fits one tree to the negative gradient. In the case of multi class classification, one tree is fitted to the negative gradient of each class.

Having fitted the stage we then use the predict_delta_model to return the prediction of the negative gradient at this stage.

def predict_delta_model(self, X, stage=0):
    class_gradient_step = []
    for class_k, model in enumerate(self.trees[stage]):
        k_gradient_step = model.predict(X).reshape(-1)
    gradient_step = np.stack(class_gradient_step, axis=-1)
    return gradient_step

There are a few more methods defined for inference such as predict and predict_proba but this post is long enough!

Further reading

Honestly these three are excellent resources for understanding gradient boosting:

Thanks for reading! 👏 Please get in touch with any questions, mistakes or improvements.