What is Bias-variance tradeoff

The Bias-Variance Tradeoff in Machine Learning

Machine learning algorithms strive to find the best possible model that can generalize to new, unseen data. However, there is an inherent tradeoff between two sources of error in machine learning: bias and variance. In this article, we will discuss the bias-variance tradeoff and how it affects machine learning models.

What is Bias?

Bias is a measure of how far the predictions of a model are from the true values. It reflects the tendency of a model to systematically overestimate or underestimate the target variable. A model with high bias is said to be underfitting the training data.

For example, suppose we want to predict the price of a house based on its size. A linear regression model that predicts the price as a linear function of the size has a low bias if the true relationship between price and size is linear. However, if the true relationship is non-linear, the linear regression model will have a high bias and will not capture the underlying pattern in the data.

What is Variance?

Variance measures how much the predictions of a model vary from one another when trained on different subsets of the training data. It reflects the sensitivity of the model to the noise in the training data. A model with high variance is said to be overfitting the training data.

For the same example of predicting house prices based on size, a decision tree model that is allowed to grow too deep will have a high variance. The decision tree will fit the training data too closely, resulting in different prediction values for the same input if the subsets of training data are different.

The Tradeoff between Bias and Variance

The tradeoff between bias and variance is illustrated in the following diagram:

Bias-variance tradeoff diagram

The vertical axis measures the error of the model, which is the difference between the predicted values and the true values. The horizontal axis measures the complexity of the model, which is usually measured by the number of parameters or features used in the model.

At the low end of the complexity spectrum, the models are too simple and have high bias. They do not capture the underlying pattern in the data, resulting in poor predictions. As the complexity increases, the models become better at fitting the training data, which decreases the bias. However, as the complexity increases beyond a certain point, the models start to overfit the training data, which increases the variance and the error of the model. Therefore, there is a sweet spot in the middle where the models have low bias and low variance, and the error is minimized.

How to Balance Bias and Variance

There are several techniques to balance the bias-variance tradeoff:

  • Regularization: Regularization techniques add a penalty term to the objective function of the model, which discourages the model from using too many features or parameters. This reduces the complexity of the model and prevents overfitting. Popular regularization techniques include L1 regularization (Lasso), L2 regularization (Ridge), and elastic net regularization.
  • Cross-validation: Cross-validation techniques split the training data into multiple subsets and train the model on each subset while evaluating the performance on the remaining subsets. This helps estimate the generalization error of the model and select the optimal complexity that balances bias and variance.
  • Ensemble methods: Ensemble methods combine multiple models to improve the performance of the overall prediction. There are two main types of ensemble methods: bagging and boosting. Bagging methods such as random forests train multiple decision trees on different subsets of the training data and average their predictions. Boosting methods such as gradient boosting train multiple weak learners sequentially, where each weak learner tries to correct the errors of the previous learner.

The bias-variance tradeoff is a fundamental concept in machine learning that affects the performance of models. Finding the right balance between bias and variance is crucial for achieving optimal predictions on new, unseen data. Regularization, cross-validation, and ensemble methods are effective techniques for balancing the bias-variance tradeoff.