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What is AdaBoost?

AdaBoost is the abbreviation for Adaptive Boosting and is a method from the field of Ensemble Learning, which describes how to form a strong model with good results from several so-called weak learners.

What is ensemble learning and boosting in Machine Learning?

In Machine Learning, not only individual models are used. To improve the performance of the entire program, several individual models are sometimes combined into a so-called ensemble. A random forest, for example, consists of many individual decision trees whose results are then combined into one result. The basic idea behind this is the so-called “Wisdom of Crowds”, which states that the expected value of several independent estimates is better than each estimate. This theory was formulated after the weight of an ox at a medieval fair was not estimated as accurately by any individual as by the average of the individual estimates.

Boosting describes the procedure of combining multiple models into an ensemble. Using the example of decision trees, the training data is used to train a tree. For all the data for which the first decision tree gives bad or wrong results, a second decision tree is formed. This is then trained using only the data that the first misclassified. This chain is continued and the next tree in turn uses the information that led to bad results in the first two trees.

Das Bild zeigt den Gradient Boosting Prozess, wie er bei XGBoost genutzt wird.
Gradient Boosting Process | Source: Author

The ensemble of all these decision trees can then provide good results for the entire data set since each individual model compensates for the weaknesses of the others. This is also referred to as combining many “weak learners” into one “strong learner”.

These are referred to as weak learners because in many cases they deliver rather poor results. Their accuracy is in many cases better than simply guessing, but also not significantly better. However, they offer the advantage that they are easy to calculate in many cases and can thus be combined easily and inexpensively.

How does the algorithm work?

Adaptive boosting, or AdaBoost for short, is a special variant of boosting. It tries to combine several weak learners into a strong model. In its basic form, Adaptive Boost works best with Decision Trees. However, we do not use the “full-grown” trees with partly several branches, but only the stumps, i.e. trees with only one branch. These are called “decision stumps”.

Difference between a Decision Tree and a Decision Stump | Source: Author

For our example, we want to train a classification that can predict whether a person is healthy or not. To do this, we use a total of three features: Age, weight, and the number of hours of exercise per week. In our dataset, there are a total of 20 studied individuals. The Adaptive Boost algorithm now works in several steps:

  • Step 1: For each feature, a decision stump is trained with the weighted data set. In the beginning, all data points still have the same weight. In our case, this means that we have a single stump for age, weight, and sports hours, which directly classifies health based on the feature.
  • Step 2: From the three Decision Stumps, we choose the model that had the best success rate. Suppose the stump with the sports lessons performed the best. Out of the 20 people, he was already able to classify 15 correctly. The five misclassified ones now get a higher weighting in the data set to ensure that they will be classified correctly in the next model.
  • Step 3: The newly weighted data set is now used to train three new Decision Stumps again. With the “new” dataset”, this time the stump with the “Age” feature performed the best, misclassifying only three people.
  • Step 4: Steps two and three are now repeated until either all data points have been correctly classified or the maximum number of iterations has been reached. This means that the model repeats the new weighting of the data set and the training of new decision stumps.

Now we understand where the name “Adaptive” comes from in AdaBoost. By reweighting the original data set, the ensemble “adapts” more and more to the concrete use case.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of boosting in general?

The general advantage of boosting is that many weak learners are combined into one strong model. Despite a large number of small models, these boosting algorithms are usually easier to compute than comparable neural networks. However, this does not necessarily mean that they also produce worse results. In some cases, ensemble models can even beat the more complex networks in terms of accuracy. Thus, they are also interesting candidates for text or image classification.

Furthermore, boosting algorithms, such as AdaBoost, also tend to overfit less. This simply means that they not only perform well with the training dataset but also classify well with new data with high accuracy. It is believed that the multilevel model computation of boosting algorithms is not as prone to dependencies as the layers in a neural network, since the models are not optimized contiguously as is the case with backpropagation in the model.

Due to the stepwise training of single models, boosting models often have a relatively slow learning rate and therefore need more iterations to deliver good results. Furthermore, they require very good data sets, since the models react very sensitively to noise and this should be removed in the data preprocessing.

Random Forest vs. AdaBoost

The Random Forest also uses many decision trees, like AdaBoost, but with the difference that they all get the same training data and also the same weight in the final prediction. Furthermore, the trees can contain many decision paths and are not limited to only one level as in AdaBoost. In addition, AdaBoost changes the weights of individual data points if they were not properly classified by the previous model. Thus, the individual “decision stumps” are trained on slightly different data sets, unlike the Random Forest.

However, these small changes to the architecture sometimes have a big impact in practice:

  • Training speed: Since the decision trees in the random forest are independent of each other, the training of the trees can be parallelized and distributed to different servers. This reduces the training time. The AdaBoost algorithm, on the other hand, cannot be parallelized due to the sequential arrangement, since the next decision stump cannot be trained until the previous one has been completed.
  • Prediction Speed: However, when it comes to the actual application, i.e. when the models are trained out and have to classify new data, the whole thing turns around. That is, for Inference, AdaBoost is faster than Random Forest because the predictions in full-grown trees and that too in multiplicity take significantly more time than with AdaBoost.
  • Overfitting: The Decision Stump in AdaBoost that produces few errors has a high weighting for the final prediction, while another stump that produces many errors has little predictive power. In the Random Forest, on the other hand, the significance of all trees is identical, regardless of how good or bad their results were. Thus, the chance of overfitting is much lower with Random Forest than with an AdaBoost model.

Gradient Boosting vs. AdaBoost

In AdaBoost, many different decision trees with only one decision level, so-called decision stumps, are trained sequentially with the errors of the previous models. Gradient Boosting, on the other hand, tries to minimize the loss function by training subsequent models to further reduce the so-called residual, i.e. the difference between the prediction and the actual value.

Thus, Gradient Boosting can be used for regressions, i.e. the prediction of continuous values, as well as for classifications, i.e. the classification into groups. The AdaBoost algorithm, on the other hand, can only be used for classifications. This is also the main difference between these two boosting algorithms because, in the core idea, both try to combine weak learners into a strong model through sequential learning and the higher weighting of false predictions.

Which Boosting algorithm should you choose?

Choosing the right boosting algorithm depends on several factors such as the size and complexity of the dataset, the level of interpretability required, and the computational resources available.

Here’s a brief overview of the three popular boosting algorithms you mentioned:

  1. AdaBoost (Adaptive Boosting) is a widely used boosting algorithm that combines multiple weak classifiers to form a strong classifier. It assigns weights to the training samples and adjusts these weights in each iteration to focus on the misclassified samples. AdaBoost is a good choice for simple classification tasks with moderate-sized datasets.
  2. XGBoost (Extreme Gradient Boosting) is a popular and powerful boosting algorithm that uses decision trees as base learners. It uses a regularized approach to prevent overfitting and can handle large datasets with high-dimensional features. XGBoost is computationally efficient and can be used for both regression and classification problems.
  3. Gradient Boosting is a generic boosting algorithm that can be used with different loss functions and base learners. It works by iteratively adding weak learners to form a strong learner that minimizes the loss function. Gradient Boosting is flexible and can handle different types of data, including categorical features.

In summary, if you have a simple classification task with moderate-sized datasets, AdaBoost may be a good choice. If you have a large dataset with high-dimensional features and want to prevent overfitting, XGBoost could be a better option. Gradient Boosting is a versatile algorithm that can be used for various types of data and loss functions.

How can AdaBoost help with biased data?

One of the significant advantages of AdaBoost is its ability to handle biased data or class imbalances effectively. In real-world datasets, it is common to encounter situations where one class significantly outnumbers the other, leading to biased data distribution. Biased data can pose challenges in traditional machine learning models, as they tend to favor the majority class, resulting in poor predictions for the minority class. However, AdaBoost’s adaptive boosting mechanism makes it particularly well-suited to address this issue.

AdaBoost addresses the class imbalance problem by adjusting the weights of misclassified samples during the training process. In each iteration, AdaBoost assigns higher weights to samples that were misclassified by the previous weak learner. By doing so, AdaBoost focuses more on the samples from the minority class, making the model more sensitive to the underrepresented class during training.

Consequently, as AdaBoost continues to train weak learners in subsequent iterations, it places a greater emphasis on correctly classifying the minority class samples. This adaptability effectively balances the impact of both majority and minority class samples, enabling the AdaBoost model to make more accurate predictions for both classes.

As AdaBoost progresses, the combined effect of the weighted misclassified samples results in a strong learner that performs well on both classes, even in the presence of class imbalance. The weak learners, which are simple classifiers, are forced to pay more attention to the minority class, thus significantly improving their predictive performance on that class.

In the end, the final ensemble classifier produced by AdaBoost is better equipped to deal with biased data compared to individual weak learners or other traditional classifiers. The ability to adapt to class imbalance, coupled with the aggregation of multiple weak learners, makes AdaBoost a robust and reliable choice for classification tasks on imbalanced datasets.

While AdaBoost is effective in handling biased data, there are some caveats to keep in mind. If the class imbalance is extreme, with the minority class representing only a tiny fraction of the dataset, AdaBoost might still face challenges. In such cases, other specialized techniques, like data resampling methods (e.g., oversampling the minority class or undersampling the majority class) or using different performance metrics, might need to be considered in conjunction with AdaBoost to achieve optimal results.

AdaBoost’s adaptive boosting mechanism makes it a powerful tool for handling biased data and class imbalances in classification tasks. By assigning higher weights to misclassified samples from the minority class during training, AdaBoost effectively balances the impact of different classes and enhances the predictive performance on underrepresented classes. This property, along with the ensemble nature of AdaBoost, makes it a valuable and versatile algorithm for a wide range of real-world applications dealing with imbalanced datasets.

How to implement the Adaboost algorithm in Python?

AdaBoost is a powerful ensemble learning technique that can be easily implemented in Python using popular libraries such as scikit-learn. In this section, we will walk you through the steps of using AdaBoost with a publicly available dataset.

Step 1: Data Preparation
Choose a publicly available dataset suitable for classification. For this example, we will use the famous Iris dataset, which is available in scikit-learn. Split the dataset into features (X) and target labels (y).


Step 2: Importing and Initializing the AdaBoost Classifier
Next, import the AdaBoost classifier from scikit-learn and initialize it. AdaBoost can be used with various base classifiers, but for this example, we will use the DecisionTreeClassifier as the weak learner.


Step 3: Model Training and Evaluation
Train the AdaBoost classifier on the training data and evaluate its performance on the test data.


Step 4: Predictions and Performance Metrics
Make predictions using the trained AdaBoost classifier and compute performance metrics such as precision, recall, and F1-score.


Step 5: Fine-tuning the Model (Optional)
Optionally, you can fine-tune the model by adjusting hyperparameters such as the number of weak learners (n_estimators), learning rate, or the base estimator.


By following these steps, you can easily use AdaBoost in Python with a publicly available dataset. It is a versatile ensemble learning technique that can be applied to various classification problems, and its implementation in Python through libraries like scikit-learn makes it accessible and effective for both beginners and experienced data scientists.

This is what you should take with you

  • AdaBoost is the abbreviation for Adaptive Boosting and is a method from the field of ensemble learning, which describes how one can form a strong model with good results from several so-called weak learners.
  • In the core, Decision Trees are used, which are trained sequentially. This means that a tree is always trained with the same data as the previous one, with the difference that the incorrectly predicted data points of the previous model are now weighted higher.
  • While AdaBoost’s approach is similar to that of Random Forest, it has the main difference that the trees have only one branch and must be trained sequentially, i.e., one after the other, rather than in parallel.
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The Scikit-Learn documentation for AdaBoost can be found here.

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