Tree-Based Regression Methods (Part III): AdaBoost

August 15, 2020


After introducing random forests as a first algorithm in the class of ensemble methods, today's post covers another well-known ensemble method known as AdaBoost. AdaBoost, short for adaptive boosting, is, as the name suggests, based on the boosting principle. Boosting techniques consider a collection of so-called weak learners which collaborate in a clever way to form accurate predictions. A weak learner is a predictor which by itself only has limited predictive power. Weak learners are usually based on more expressive models such as decision trees whose complexity is intentionally limited. Consequently, the philosophy at the heart of boosting is strength in numbers, meaning that the power of the ensemble is due to the different strengths and weaknesses of its individual members.

As we discussed last time, the estimators in a random forest ensemble are all trained in isolation. The improved predictive performance and generalizability over simple decision trees is achieved by randomizing the training set for each estimator, and averaging the individual predictions of each tree. This process is known as bagging. In contrast, boosting uses the information of how well the previous estimator in the ensemble performed on the training set to construct the next estimator.

In this post, we will introduce the most popular version of AdaBoost for regression, commonly known as AdaBoost.R2 as described in the paper "Improving Regressors Using Boosting Techniques" by H. Drucker. Note that even though the post focuses on tree-based regression methods, we emphasize that AdaBoost is a general boosting framework that is compatible with any type of supervised learning algorithm, not just decision trees. However, it is safe to say that the most common choice of weak learners in AdaBoost are CARTs. This is also the case for sklearn's AdaBoostRegressor, which we will use as baseline to compare our implementation against later on.

The Python code accompanying this post can be found here:

Adaptive Boosting

In the case of decision trees and random forests, the prediction step was pretty straightforward once a trained regressor was available. Unfortunately, in the particular case of AdaBoost, the situation is slightly different. Naturally, the prediction step is less complicated than the training step. However, there is not much insight to be gained from explaining how prediction is carried out first without going into the construction principle behind AdaBoost.[1] In contrast to the previous two posts, we will therefore begin our foray into the inner workings of AdaBoost for regression by detailing the training process. This will provide some intuition and insight for the subsequent prediction step and the corresponding Python implementation we will discuss towards the end of the post.

To highlight the conceptual differences between random forests and AdaBoost, we begin by briefly reviewing the idea behind random forests.[2] A random forest is simply a collection of independently trained decision trees. Each tree is trained on a bootstrapped (i.e., randomly subsampled) version of the training set. This bootstrapping step reduces the likelihood that trees overfit to potential idiosyncrasies in the training data, which might not be representative of the true data distribution we are trying to learn. Since all trees are trained independently, each tree has the same say in the final prediction of the ensemble, which is simply taken as the average of all predictions in a democratic manner. This combination of bootstrapping the training set and aggregating individual predictions is commonly known as bagging.

In contrast, the estimators in an AdaBoost ensemble are constructed sequentially in order to improve the predictions of the next estimator for those training samples that the previous estimator performed poorly on. For starters, this means that there is no straightforward way to parallelize the training process. However, as touched on in the introduction, the estimators in an AdaBoost ensemble are usually weak learners whose model complexity is intentionally restricted. This means that each estimator is generally easy to train. Controlling the complexity of individual learners therefore allows for a trade-off between predictive power of the ensemble and training time.

With the high-level differences between random forests and AdaBoost out of the way, let us move on to the actual training process of AdaBoost.

Ensemble Fitting

The core idea in training an AdaBoost ensemble is the following. We begin by training a weak learner on a bootstrapped training set. The estimator is than applied to every example in the original training set to determine the prediction error of each example.[3] As the weak learner only has limited predictive capability, the estimator will perform better on certain samples of the training set than on others. The idea now is to train another learner that performs better on exactly those samples. Naturally, this learner will again work better for some examples than for others, so another learner is trained to improve performance on those samples, and so on. The question is how we can steer the training process to emphasize the importance of learning to predict certain samples better than others.

The strategy adopted by AdaBoost is to use a carefully resampled training set in which difficult samples are included multiple times. In particular, one defines a discrete probability distribution on the training set that is used to sample from the set, where difficult samples are assigned a higher probability such that they are more likely to appear multiple times in the resampled training set. Intuitively, by including difficult samples multiple times, the prediction error of the respective samples also have a higher impact on the overall prediction error. Training a learner on such a dataset therefore naturally creates an estimator which performs better on the samples in question than the previous estimator.

To make matters concrete, consider a training set D:={(x1,y1),,(xk,yk)}Rp×R\Trainset \defeq \set{(\vmx_1, y_1), \ldots, (\vmx_\nsamp, y_\nsamp)} \subset \R^\nfeat \times \R consisting of feature vectors xi\vmx_i and labels yiy_i. We want to train an ensemble of weight/estimator pairs

F={(wt,ft)wtR,ft ⁣:RpR,t=1,,T}, \family = \setpred{(w_t, f_t)}{w_t \in \R, \function{f_t}{\R^\nfeat}{\R}, t = 1, \ldots, \nest},

representing our AdaBoost regressor, where the weights wtw_t quantify the quality of individual estimators. We also define a sequence of sample weights s1,,skR+s_1, \ldots, s_\nsamp \in \R_+, which we initialize as si=1s_i = 1.

We now proceed as follows for every estimator indexed by t=1,,Tt = 1, \ldots, \nest:

  1. Normalize the sample weights sis_i to obtain a discrete probability distribution on D\Trainset:

    pi:=sij=1ksj. p_i \defeq \frac{s_i}{\sum_{j=1}^\nsamp s_j}.

  2. Draw k\nsamp samples from D\Trainset with replacement according to the probability distribution (p1,,pk)(p_1, \ldots, p_\nsamp) to obtain the resampled training set D~\tilde{\Trainset}.
  3. Train a weak learner ft ⁣:RpR\function{f_t}{\R^\nfeat}{\R} on the training set D~\tilde{\Trainset}, and compute the prediction errors ei:=ft(xi)yie_i \defeq \abs{f_t(\vmx_i) - y_i} for each example (xi,yi)D(\vmx_i, y_i) \in \Trainset in the original training set. Now compute the normalized losses

    Li:=ei(ej)j=1k[0,1], L_i \defeq \frac{e_i}{\norm{(e_j)_{j=1}^\nsamp}_\infty} \in [0, 1],

    as well as the average loss Lˉ:=i=1kpiLi\bar{L} \defeq \sum_{i=1}^\nsamp p_i L_i of the estimator. If Lˉ0.5\bar{L} \geq 0.5, reject the current estimator (unless it is the first one) and abort the training process.
  4. Compute

    β=Lˉ1Lˉ, \beta = \frac{\bar{L}}{1 - \bar{L}},

    and set the estimator weight to wt=log(1/β)w_t = \log(1 / \beta).
  5. Finally, for each training example i=1,,ki = 1, \ldots, \nsamp, update the associated sample weight sis_i according to

    sisiβ1Li. s_i \leftarrow s_i \beta^{1 - L_i}.

The steps outlined above follow the paper by H. Drucker that introduced AdaBoost.R2. Let's look a little closer at the involved quantities to gain a better intuition into the design of AdaBoost.

First of all, while LiL_i measures the performance of the estimator on the ii-th training example, Lˉ\bar{L} and consequently β\beta measure the overall (average) performance of the estimator ftf_t. Naturally, small values of β\beta indicate good performance on the original training set. The update rule of the sample weights in step 5 combines the overall quality of the estimator with the behavior on individual training examples. As outlined above, the idea is to increase the sample weight sis_i (and consequently the sample probability pip_i) for a sample that was predicted poorly (i.e., high LiL_i) and decrease it otherwise. This is achieved by scaling the current weight sis_i by β1Li\beta^{1-L_i} since aba^b for a(0,1)a \in (0, 1) tends towards 11 as bb goes to 00 (from above). Note, however, that this only makes sense if β<1\beta < 1 as implied by Lˉ<0.5\bar{L} < 0.5. This is why a learner with an average error of 0.50.5 or higher is rejected in step 3 and the training process aborted.

The graphs below depict the behavior of β\beta and the estimator weight wtw_t as functions of the average error in the feasible region Lˉ(0,0.5]\bar{L} \in (0, 0.5]. Since the estimator weight wtw_t is the negative logarithm of β\beta, estimators with a low average error are assigned a higher weight to indicate confidence in the accuracy of the estimator. This will play an important role in the prediction step. As Lˉ\bar{L} tends towards 00, the estimator weight wtw_t increases much faster than it decreases as Lˉ0.5\bar{L} \to 0.5. Intuitively, this means that AdaBoost has slightly more confidence in an estimator's assessment of being a good predictor compared to one that supposedly performed badly. Note that due to the value ranges of β\beta and LiL_i, every sample weight sis_i will remain nonnegative after step 5. Normalizing the updated sample weights according to step 1 therefore always yields a valid probability distribution on D\Trainset.

Beta and weight as a function of the averageloss

Weighted Median Prediction

As the title of the section suggests, AdaBoost uses the weighted median of the individual predictions to determine the final prediction of the ensemble. Ignoring the estimator weights wtw_t for a moment, simply taking the median of the estimates {ft(x)}t=1T\set{f_t(\vmx)}_{t=1}^\nest for an unseen observation xRp\vmx \in \R^\nfeat could be interpreted as a form of continuous majority voting that is robust to sporadic outliers in the predictions. However, this would ignore the confidence information that we have about each predictor's accuracy on the training set as determined during model training. Instead, AdaBoost first orders each prediction in ascending order such that

fπ(1)(x)fπ(2)(x)fπ(T)(x) f_{\pi(1)}(\vmx) \leq f_{\pi(2)}(\vmx) \leq \ldots \leq f_{\pi(\nest)}(\vmx)

where π ⁣:[T][T]\function{\pi}{[\nest]}{[\nest]} is a permutation, and [n]:={1,,n}[n] \defeq \set{1, \ldots, n} for nNn \in \N. It then finds the smallest index t=1,,T\opt{t} = 1, \ldots, \nest for which the inequality

i=1twπ(i)12t=1Twt \sum_{i=1}^\opt{t} w_{\pi(i)} \geq \frac{1}{2} \sum_{t=1}^\nest w_t

holds. The Wikipedia article for the weighted median provides a good illustration of the principle. In short, the weights wtw_t are interpreted as widths of the bars representing the values in our list of predictions in a bar plot. Then the weighted median is simply the value associated with the bar that we find when drawing a vertical line in the middle of the diagram. The following is a simple Python function that determines the weighted median of a 1-dimensional array, which serves as the basis for our estimator's predict method later on.

import numpy as np

def weighted_median(weights, elements):
    sort_indices = np.argsort(elements)
    sorted_weights = weights[sort_indices]
    cumulative_weights = np.cumsum(sorted_weights)
    index = (cumulative_weights >= 0.5 * np.sum(weights)).argmax()
    return elements[sort_indices[index]]

Python Implementation of an AdaBoost Regressor

As usual, we close out the post by briefly presenting a rudimentary Python implementation of the discussed algorithm. We begin with a tiny utility class and the high-level definition of our AdaBoost class.[4]

import numpy as np
from sklearn.base import BaseEstimator, RegressorMixin

from random_state import ensure_random_state
from tree import DecisionTree

class Sprout(DecisionTree):
    def __init__(self, **kwargs):
        super().__init__(max_depth=3, **kwargs)

class AdaBoost(BaseEstimator, RegressorMixin):
    def __init__(self, n_estimators=50, random_state=None):
        self.n_estimators = n_estimators
        self.random_state = random_state


    def _reset_sprouts(self):
        self.sprout_weights_ = np.zeros(self.n_estimators)
        self.sprouts_ = []

As pointed out in the beginning, AdaBoost is compatible with any type of regression method. However, since we always try to stay reasonably close to sklearn's interface, we use the same type of base estimator as the default choice in sklearn's AdaBoostRegressor, namely a decision tree regressor with max_depth set to 3.[5] We refer to such a tree as a sprout.

Next up is the usual fit method, which implements the steps outlined in the section on ensemble fitting above. The implementation is a fairly straightforward translation of the update rules into Python code.

    def fit(self, X, y):
        X, y = map(np.array, (X, y))
        num_samples = X.shape[0]
        sample_weights = np.ones(num_samples) / num_samples


        random_state = ensure_random_state(self.random_state)

        for i in range(self.n_estimators):
            # Resample the training set.
            indices = random_state.choice(
                np.arange(num_samples), size=num_samples, replace=True,
            X_resampled = X[indices, :]
            y_resampled = y[indices]

            # Train a weak learner on the resampled training data.
            sprout = Sprout(random_state=random_state)
  , y_resampled)

            # Compute normalized losses and average loss.
            predictions = sprout.predict(X)
            prediction_errors = np.abs(y - predictions)
            prediction_errors /= prediction_errors.max()
            average_loss = np.inner(prediction_errors, sample_weights)

            # Early termination if loss is too bad.
            if average_loss >= 0.5:
                if len(self.sprouts_) == 0:

            # Update estimator weights.
            beta = average_loss / (1 - average_loss)
            self.sprout_weights_[i] = np.log(1 / beta)

            # Update sample weights.
            weights = sample_weights * beta ** (1 - prediction_errors)
            sample_weights = weights / weights.sum()

        return self

Lastly, it remains to implement the predict method, which uses the weighted_median function already presented above. For simplicity, we determine the weighted median for one observation at a time. Hence in the predict method, we first pass the matrix of observations to each predictor, and turn the resulting list of 1-dimensional NumPy arrays into the predictions array of shape (num_samples, n_estimators). Each row of this array contains the predictions of the estimators in the ensemble for each individual observation. We then compute the weighted median of each row w.r.t. the estimator weights self.sprout_weights_.

    def _weighted_median(self, weights, elements):
        sort_indices = np.argsort(elements)
        sorted_weights = weights[sort_indices]
        cumulative_weights = np.cumsum(sorted_weights)
        index = (cumulative_weights >= 0.5 * np.sum(weights)).argmax()
        return elements[sort_indices[index]]

    def predict(self, X):
        if not self.sprouts_:
            raise RuntimeError("Estimator needs to be fitted first")

        predictions = np.array([sprout.predict(X)
                                for sprout in self.sprouts_]).T
        return np.array([self._weighted_median(self.sprout_weights_, row)
                         for row in predictions])

At last we briefly sanity-check our implementation by comparing its performance against sklearn's implementation on the Boston housing dataset. We limit the number of estimators in the ensemble to 25.

$ python
MAE: 3.074215066418774
R^2 score: 0.5717439634843211
Time elapsed: 0.039751 seconds

MAE: 3.1515798879484787
R^2 score: 0.5608751574764101
Time elapsed: 0.781498 seconds

While our implementation's performance falls slightly behind sklearn's for our particular hyperparameter choice, our estimator seems to be working correctly. We also point out that both implementations fall somewhat behind the performance of the random forest regressor presented in the previous post. Note, however, that this is likely due to the fact that we did not bother to perform any hyperparameter tuning. The point of these informal comparisons is merely to verify the (probably) correct behavior of our implementation rather than an exhaustive performance comparison.

Closing Remarks

Despite its seemingly complicated construction procedure, AdaBoost turns out to be a rather elegant ensemble method that gradually improves the predictive power of the ensemble as training progresses. At its core, it is based on a clever resampling trick of the training set that is used to train additional estimators with better predictive performance on training examples that previous estimators in the ensemble struggled with. While this dependence between individual estimators prevents straightforward parallel training, AdaBoost estimators can still be trained rather efficiently since the base estimators of the ensemble are so-called weak learners. These models are usually very simple and on their own only have limited predictive power, which means they can generally be trained very efficiently. The simple nature of these estimators, however, does not diminish the predictive capabilities of an AdaBoost estimator. On the contrary, the fact that AdaBoost still manages to achieve highly competitive results despite the simplicity of its base estimators emphasizes the power of the particular boosting methodology.

And with this we reached the end of the penultimate post in this short series on tree-based regression algorithms. In the next post, we will finally cover the topic this series was originally motivated by: the powerful concept of gradient-boosted regression trees.

  1. Note that this mainly applies to AdaBoost for regression. In the case of classification, the prediction step is rather natural. In short, every member in the ensemble has a nonnegative weight associated with it, which are determined during training. To classify a new sample, each estimator in the ensemble makes a prediction, splitting the ensemble into distinct subsets of estimators based on the predicted classes. Instead of simply choosing the class with most votes, AdaBoost selects the class with the highest sum of associated estimator weights. In other words, in a classification context, AdaBoost forms its predictions based on a simple weighted average of vote counts. ↩︎

  2. See the previous post for details. ↩︎

  3. Obviously, evaluating model performance on the training set is considered a mortal sin in learning theory. In AdaBoost, however, the step is merely used to identify training samples which a learner could not predict well. ↩︎

  4. Note that the code presented in previous posts did not properly follow sklearn's coding conventions. For instance, parameters passed in to the constructor should always be exposed as "public" members (i.e., not prefixed with underscores). Moreover, instance attributes which are modified during calls to the fit method of an estimator should always be suffixed with an underscore. ↩︎

  5. Note that in previous posts, we did not support limiting the tree depth to arbitrary values of max_width. This rather silly restriction was lifted in ↩︎