Statistical classification

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In statistics, classification is the problem of identifying which of a set of categories (sub-populations) an observation, (or observations) belongs to. Examples are assigning a given email to the "spam" or "non-spam" class, and assigning a diagnosis to a given patient based on observed characteristics of the patient (sex, blood pressure, presence or absence of certain symptoms, etc.).


Often, the individual observations are analyzed into a set of quantifiable properties, known variously as explanatory variables or features. These properties may variously be categorical (e.g. "A", "B", "AB" or "O", for blood type), ordinal (e.g. "large", "medium" or "small"), integer-valued (e.g. the number of occurrences of a particular word in an email) or real-valued (e.g. a measurement of blood pressure). Other classifiers work by comparing observations to previous observations by means of a similarity or distance function.

An algorithm that implements classification, especially in a concrete implementation, is known as a classifier. The term "classifier" sometimes also refers to the mathematical function, implemented by a classification algorithm, that maps input data to a category.

Terminology across fields is quite varied. In statistics, where classification is often done with logistic regression or a similar procedure, the properties of observations are termed explanatory variables (or independent variables, regressors, etc.), and the categories to be predicted are known as outcomes, which are considered to be possible values of the dependent variable. In machine learning, the observations are often known as instances, the explanatory variables are termed features (grouped into a feature vector), and the possible categories to be predicted are classes. Other fields may use different terminology: e.g. in community ecology, the term "classification" normally refers to cluster analysis.

Relation to other problems

Classification and clustering are examples of the more general problem of pattern recognition, which is the assignment of some sort of output value to a given input value. Other examples are regression, which assigns a real-valued output to each input; sequence labeling, which assigns a class to each member of a sequence of values (for example, part of speech tagging, which assigns a part of speech to each word in an input sentence); parsing, which assigns a parse tree to an input sentence, describing the syntactic structure of the sentence; etc.

A common subclass of classification is probabilistic classification. Algorithms of this nature use statistical inference to find the best class for a given instance. Unlike other algorithms, which simply output a "best" class, probabilistic algorithms output a probability of the instance being a member of each of the possible classes. The best class is normally then selected as the one with the highest probability. However, such an algorithm has numerous advantages over non-probabilistic classifiers:

Frequentist procedures

Early work on statistical classification was undertaken by Fisher, [1] [2] in the context of two-group problems, leading to Fisher's linear discriminant function as the rule for assigning a group to a new observation. [3] This early work assumed that data-values within each of the two groups had a multivariate normal distribution. The extension of this same context to more than two-groups has also been considered with a restriction imposed that the classification rule should be linear. [3] [4] Later work for the multivariate normal distribution allowed the classifier to be nonlinear: [5] several classification rules can be derived based on different adjustments of the Mahalanobis distance, with a new observation being assigned to the group whose centre has the lowest adjusted distance from the observation.

Bayesian procedures

Unlike frequentist procedures, Bayesian classification procedures provide a natural way of taking into account any available information about the relative sizes of the different groups within the overall population. [6] Bayesian procedures tend to be computationally expensive and, in the days before Markov chain Monte Carlo computations were developed, approximations for Bayesian clustering rules were devised. [7]

Some Bayesian procedures involve the calculation of group membership probabilities: these provide a more informative outcome than a simple attribution of a single group-label to each new observation.

Binary and multiclass classification

Classification can be thought of as two separate problems – binary classification and multiclass classification. In binary classification, a better understood task, only two classes are involved, whereas multiclass classification involves assigning an object to one of several classes. [8] Since many classification methods have been developed specifically for binary classification, multiclass classification often requires the combined use of multiple binary classifiers.

Feature vectors

Most algorithms describe an individual instance whose category is to be predicted using a feature vector of individual, measurable properties of the instance. Each property is termed a feature, also known in statistics as an explanatory variable (or independent variable, although features may or may not be statistically independent). Features may variously be binary (e.g. "on" or "off"); categorical (e.g. "A", "B", "AB" or "O", for blood type); ordinal (e.g. "large", "medium" or "small"); integer-valued (e.g. the number of occurrences of a particular word in an email); or real-valued (e.g. a measurement of blood pressure). If the instance is an image, the feature values might correspond to the pixels of an image; if the instance is a piece of text, the feature values might be occurrence frequencies of different words. Some algorithms work only in terms of discrete data and require that real-valued or integer-valued data be discretized into groups (e.g. less than 5, between 5 and 10, or greater than 10).

Linear classifiers

A large number of algorithms for classification can be phrased in terms of a linear function that assigns a score to each possible category k by combining the feature vector of an instance with a vector of weights, using a dot product. The predicted category is the one with the highest score. This type of score function is known as a linear predictor function and has the following general form:

where Xi is the feature vector for instance i, βk is the vector of weights corresponding to category k, and score(Xi, k) is the score associated with assigning instance i to category k. In discrete choice theory, where instances represent people and categories represent choices, the score is considered the utility associated with person i choosing category k.

Algorithms with this basic setup are known as linear classifiers. What distinguishes them is the procedure for determining (training) the optimal weights/coefficients and the way that the score is interpreted.

Examples of such algorithms are


Since no single form of classification is appropriate for all data sets, a large toolkit of classification algorithms have been developed. The most commonly used include: [9]


Classifier performance depends greatly on the characteristics of the data to be classified. There is no single classifier that works best on all given problems (a phenomenon that may be explained by the no-free-lunch theorem). Various empirical tests have been performed to compare classifier performance and to find the characteristics of data that determine classifier performance. Determining a suitable classifier for a given problem is however still more an art than a science.

The measures precision and recall are popular metrics used to evaluate the quality of a classification system. More recently, receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curves have been used to evaluate the tradeoff between true- and false-positive rates of classification algorithms.

As a performance metric, the uncertainty coefficient has the advantage over simple accuracy in that it is not affected by the relative sizes of the different classes. [10] Further, it will not penalize an algorithm for simply rearranging the classes.

Application domains

Classification has many applications. In some of these it is employed as a data mining procedure, while in others more detailed statistical modeling is undertaken.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Supervised learning (SL) is the machine learning task of learning a function that maps an input to an output based on example input-output pairs. It infers a function from labeled training data consisting of a set of training examples. In supervised learning, each example is a pair consisting of an input object and a desired output value. A supervised learning algorithm analyzes the training data and produces an inferred function, which can be used for mapping new examples. An optimal scenario will allow for the algorithm to correctly determine the class labels for unseen instances. This requires the learning algorithm to generalize from the training data to unseen situations in a "reasonable" way. This statistical quality of an algorithm is measured through the so-called generalization error.

Support-vector machine Set of methods for supervised statistical learning

In machine learning, support-vector machines are supervised learning models with associated learning algorithms that analyze data for classification and regression analysis. Developed at AT&T Bell Laboratories by Vladimir Vapnik with colleagues SVMs are one of the most robust prediction methods, being based on statistical learning frameworks or VC theory proposed by Vapnik and Chervonenkis (1974). Given a set of training examples, each marked as belonging to one of two categories, an SVM training algorithm builds a model that assigns new examples to one category or the other, making it a non-probabilistic binary linear classifier. SVM maps training examples to points in space so as to maximise the width of the gap between the two categories. New examples are then mapped into that same space and predicted to belong to a category based on which side of the gap they fall.

In statistics, naive Bayes classifiers are a family of simple "probabilistic classifiers" based on applying Bayes' theorem with strong (naïve) independence assumptions between the features. They are among the simplest Bayesian network models, but coupled with kernel density estimation, they can achieve higher accuracy levels.

In the field of machine learning, the goal of statistical classification is to use an object's characteristics to identify which class it belongs to. A linear classifier achieves this by making a classification decision based on the value of a linear combination of the characteristics. An object's characteristics are also known as feature values and are typically presented to the machine in a vector called a feature vector. Such classifiers work well for practical problems such as document classification, and more generally for problems with many variables (features), reaching accuracy levels comparable to non-linear classifiers while taking less time to train and use.

Pattern recognition is the automated recognition of patterns and regularities in data. It has applications in statistical data analysis, signal processing, image analysis, information retrieval, bioinformatics, data compression, computer graphics and machine learning. Pattern recognition has its origins in statistics and engineering; some modern approaches to pattern recognition include the use of machine learning, due to the increased availability of big data and a new abundance of processing power. These activities can be viewed as two facets of the same field of application, and they have undergone substantial development over the past few decades.

Perceptron Algorithm for supervised learning of binary classifiers

In machine learning, the perceptron is an algorithm for supervised learning of binary classifiers. A binary classifier is a function which can decide whether or not an input, represented by a vector of numbers, belongs to some specific class. It is a type of linear classifier, i.e. a classification algorithm that makes its predictions based on a linear predictor function combining a set of weights with the feature vector.

Binary classification is the task of classifying the elements of a set into two groups on the basis of a classification rule. Typical binary classification problems include:

There are two main uses of the term calibration in statistics that denote special types of statistical inference problems. "Calibration" can mean

In statistical classification, two main approaches are called the generative approach and the discriminative approach. These compute classifiers by different approaches, differing in the degree of statistical modelling. Terminology is inconsistent, but three major types can be distinguished, following Jebara (2004):

  1. A generative model is a statistical model of the joint probability distribution on given observable variable X and target variable Y;
  2. A discriminative model is a model of the conditional probability of the target Y, given an observation x; and
  3. Classifiers computed without using a probability model are also referred to loosely as "discriminative".

Linear discriminant analysis (LDA), normal discriminant analysis (NDA), or discriminant function analysis is a generalization of Fisher's linear discriminant, a method used in statistics and other fields, to find a linear combination of features that characterizes or separates two or more classes of objects or events. The resulting combination may be used as a linear classifier, or, more commonly, for dimensionality reduction before later classification.

In statistics, the k-nearest neighbors algorithm (k-NN) is a non-parametric classification method first developed by Evelyn Fix and Joseph Hodges in 1951, and later expanded by Thomas Cover. It is used for classification and regression. In both cases, the input consists of the k closest training examples in a data set. The output depends on whether k-NN is used for classification or regression:

The following is a glossary of terms used in the mathematical sciences statistics and probability.

In statistics, multinomial logistic regression is a classification method that generalizes logistic regression to multiclass problems, i.e. with more than two possible discrete outcomes. That is, it is a model that is used to predict the probabilities of the different possible outcomes of a categorically distributed dependent variable, given a set of independent variables.

In machine learning, multi-label classification and the strongly related problem of multi-output classification are variants of the classification problem where multiple labels may be assigned to each instance. Multi-label classification is a generalization of multiclass classification, which is the single-label problem of categorizing instances into precisely one of more than two classes; in the multi-label problem there is no constraint on how many of the classes the instance can be assigned to.

In machine learning, multiclass or multinomial classification is the problem of classifying instances into one of three or more classes.

Probabilistic classification

In machine learning, a probabilistic classifier is a classifier that is able to predict, given an observation of an input, a probability distribution over a set of classes, rather than only outputting the most likely class that the observation should belong to. Probabilistic classifiers provide classification that can be useful in its own right or when combining classifiers into ensembles.

In statistics, linear regression is a linear approach for modelling the relationship between a scalar response and one or more explanatory variables. The case of one explanatory variable is called simple linear regression; for more than one, the process is called multiple linear regression. This term is distinct from multivariate linear regression, where multiple correlated dependent variables are predicted, rather than a single scalar variable.

Outline of machine learning Overview of and topical guide to machine learning

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to machine learning. Machine learning is a subfield of soft computing within computer science that evolved from the study of pattern recognition and computational learning theory in artificial intelligence. In 1959, Arthur Samuel defined machine learning as a "field of study that gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed". Machine learning explores the study and construction of algorithms that can learn from and make predictions on data. Such algorithms operate by building a model from an example training set of input observations in order to make data-driven predictions or decisions expressed as outputs, rather than following strictly static program instructions.

In statistics, specifically regression analysis, a binary regression estimates a relationship between one or more explanatory variables and a single output binary variable. Generally the probability of the two alternatives is modeled, instead of simply outputting a single value, as in linear regression.


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  2. Fisher, R. A. (1938). "The Statistical Utilization of Multiple Measurements". Annals of Eugenics . 8 (4): 376–386. doi:10.1111/j.1469-1809.1938.tb02189.x. hdl: 2440/15232 .
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