Learning Diverse Models: The Coulomb Structured Support Vector Machine

Conference paper
Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNCS, volume 9907)


In structured prediction, it is standard procedure to discriminatively train a single model that is then used to make a single prediction for each input. This practice is simple but risky in many ways. For instance, models are often designed with tractability rather than faithfulness in mind. To hedge against such model misspecification, it may be useful to train multiple models that all are a reasonable fit to the training data, but at least one of which may hopefully make more valid predictions than the single model in standard procedure. We propose the Coulomb Structured SVM (CSSVM) as a means to obtain at training time a full ensemble of different models. At test time, these models can run in parallel and independently to make diverse predictions. We demonstrate on challenging tasks from computer vision that some of these diverse predictions have significantly lower task loss than that of a single model, and improve over state-of-the-art diversity encouraging approaches.


Structured output learning Diverse predictions Multiple output learning Structured support vector machine 

1 Introduction

The success of large margin methods for structured output learning, such as the structured support vector machine (SSVM) [1], is partly due to their good generalization performances achieved on test data, compared to, e.g. maximum likelihood learning on structured models [2]. Despite such regularization strategies, however, it is not guaranteed that the model which optimizes the learning objective function really generalizes well to unseen data. Reasons include wrong model assumptions, noisy data, ambiguities in the data, missing features, insufficient training data, or a task loss which is too complex to model directly.

To further decrease the generalization error, it is beneficial to either (i) generate multiple likely solutions from the model [3, 4, 5] or, (ii) learn multiple models which generate diverse predictions [6, 7, 8]. The different predictions for a given structured input may then be analyzed to compute robustness/uncertainty measures, or may be the input for a more complex model exploiting higher-order dependencies, as is done in re-ranking models, e.g. Yadollahpour et al. [9] augment their features with global ones for automatic re-ranking. Other successful applications include prediction of diverse hypotheses for machine translation [10], on-demand feature computation [11], or active learning methods [12, 13]. Furthermore, an oracle may choose amongst all predictions that one which is closest to the ground truth. This becomes handy for proof-reading tasks in order to keep manual interactions at a minimum. It is particularly beneficial in structured output spaces to present to the user not only similarly likely, but also diverse proposal solutions. The set of diverse predictions may still contain a low-loss solution, even if the most likely prediction of the single model has a large loss. As a consequence, instead of minimizing the expected generalization error of a single model in structured learning, (cf. Fig. 1(a)), it is favorable to minimize the expected generalization error amongst multiple models, see Fig. 1(b, c).
Fig. 1.

Structured SVM learning. “\(+\)” indicates a structured training example whereas “−” in the same color are the corresponding structured outputs with task loss \(\varDelta (+,-) > 0\). (a) A standard linear SSVM maximizes the margin between positive and all “negative” examples (decision boundary with its normal vector in cyan). (b) Multiple choice learning [6] learns M SSVMs (here: 3) which cluster the space (clusters for positive and negative examples are depicted in the same color) to generate M outputs. (c) We propose the Coulomb Structured SVM which learns an ensemble of M SSVMs through a diversity term which maximizes the pairwise angles \(\theta _{ij}\) between their (linear) decision boundaries, while seeking to best fit all training data. (Color figure online)

Our main contribution is an algorithm termed the Coulomb structured support vector machine (CSSVM) which learns an ensemble of M models with different parameters, thanks to a corresponding diversity-encouraging prior. This is qualitatively different from previous work which requires that the outputs of the M models are diverse. In particular, we allow the M models in the ensemble to make identical predictions (and hence perfectly fit the data) at training time. Another benefit is that CSSVM can learn diverse models even if only a single structured training example is available. In Sect. 3.4, we generalize our algorithm to allow for structured clustering.

2 Related Work

One major research avenue is to generate at prediction time multiple (possibly diverse) solutions from a single previously trained structured model [3, 4, 5]. In order to find M similarly likely solutions, Yanover et al. [3] propose a message passing scheme to iteratively add constraints forbidding the previous solutions. Batra et al. [5] build on the same idea but incorporate these constraints directly into the objective function. This yields a deterministic framework which tries to find diverse solutions by requiring a minimum distance to the previous solutions. Their idea is extended in [14] to jointly infer diverse predictions at test time. Papandreou and Yuille [4], instead, perturb model parameters repeatedly with noise from a Gumbel distribution, and subsequently solve for the maximum-a-posteriori (MAP) solution to sample M plausible solutions. Their idea of perturbing the data term is natural when data is assumed to be noisy.

Sampling M solutions could of course also be achieved using Gibbs sampling or other MCMC techniques, however with very slow mixing time on general graphs; more efficient sampling strategies have been proposed recently [15]. Recent work aims at finding the M best modes of the probability distribution (local maxima) directly [16, 17]. While promising, their algorithms are yet not applicable to general graphs. Another recently discussed approach to sample diverse predictions at test time are determinantal point processes [18].

Rather than learning one model and then sampling successively (possibly diverse) solutions from the model, recent developments [6, 7, 8] allow to train multiple diverse models, i.e. diversity is already considered at training time. Typically, only one ground truth solution is provided per training sample rather than a diverse set, and thus diversity amongst the models can not be directly measured by means of training data. There are multiple works which tackle this challenge successfully: Gane et al. [8] learn (multi-modal) distributions over the perturbations in Perturb-and-MAP models using latent variable models which include inverse convex programs to determine relations between the model parameters and the MAP solution. Most similar to our work is [6, 7], where a set of M SSVMs is optimized while trading diversity versus data fit. In the former, diversity is encouraged through clustering: Each structured training example is assigned to the learner which achieves the lowest task loss for this sample in the current iteration. Their idea builds on the assumption that there are M clusters present in the training samples, thus requiring at least M (implicitly) diverse training samples. This requirement may be a crucial problem on small training sets. Our approach, in contrast, can learn M diverse models even if only one training example is present, as is often the case in CRF learning, e.g. co-segmentation (Sect. 4i), [19, 20]. In their more recent work, Guzman-Rivera et al. [7] extend their idea by augmenting the learning objective directly with a convex term which explicitly rewards diversity in the outputs of different learners, as also done in [21]. In our approach, in contrast, the diversity prior is posed on the parameters of the M models, and thus, all learners might achieve the same loss on the training samples while still providing diverse predictions on test data, cf. Fig. 1(b, c).

3 Coulomb Structured Support Vector Machine

The goal of this work is to learn M mappings from one structured input to M possibly diverse structured outputs from a training set \(\mathcal D = \{ (\mathbf x_i, \mathbf {y}_i) \}_{i=1,\ldots ,N}\).

3.1 Problem Description and Diversity Prior

For this purpose, we propose to learn an ensemble of M concurrent structured SVMs, which amounts to the following optimization problem:
$$\begin{aligned} \mathop {{{\mathrm{arg\,min}}}}\limits _{{\mathbf {w}}_1,\ldots ,{\mathbf {w}}_M} \underbrace{\alpha \varGamma (W)}_{\text {diversity}} + \underbrace{\varOmega (W)}_{\text {generalization}} + \underbrace{C\cdot R_M(W, \mathcal {D})}_{\text {data term}}, \end{aligned}$$
where \(R_M(W, \mathcal D) = \frac{1}{MN} \cdot \sum _{m=1}^M \left( \sum _{i=1}^N L(\mathbf {x}_i, \mathbf {y}_i; {\mathbf {w}}_m) \right) \) is the empirical risk with \(L(\mathbf {x}_i, \mathbf {y}_i; {\mathbf {w}}_m)\) being the structured loss of the i-th training example evaluated by the m-th learner. \(\varOmega (W)\) is the regularization term on the parameters \(W=[\mathbf {w}_1,\ldots ,\mathbf {w}_M]\) (in SSVMs typically an L2 regularizer is used on each single \(\mathbf {w}_i\)), and a bias term is omitted since it does not have an influence on the optimization problem [22]. Diversity amongst the M learners is encouraged by the diversity prior \(\varGamma (W)\) on the parameters W, where \(\alpha \) regulates the degree of diversity. In this way, \(\alpha =0\) reveals the standard SSVM formulation, since all M weights converge to the same optimum.

For the ease of argument, let us now assume the training set is linearly separable1 as in Fig. 1. Moreover, assume that feature selection yielded independent features. Our illustration of the structured learning problem in Fig. 1 is analogous to representations of flat classification problems where we regard the ground truth labeling of the structured training samples as the single positive examples and all other (exponentially many) labelings as corresponding negative examples. The objective in Fig. 1(a) is to find a weight vector \(\mathbf {w}\) which separates the positive from the negative examples and maximizes the margin [1].

We define the version space \(V(\mathcal D)\) analogously as in flat classification [24, 25], as
$$\begin{aligned} V(\mathcal D) = \{ \mathbf {w} \in \mathcal W \mid R_1(\mathbf {w}, \mathcal D) = 0\}, \end{aligned}$$
where \(R_1\) is the empirical risk as in Eq. (1) with \(M=1\), and \(\mathcal W\) is the space of feasible weight vectors. In other words, the version space is the set of all feasible weight vectors which yield zero loss on the training set \(\mathcal D\). For linear classifiers, the weight vectors \(\mathbf {w} \in \mathcal W\) are linear combinations of the training points \(\mathbf {x}_i\) [25], i.e. \(\mathbf {w} = \sum _{i=1}^N c_i \mathbf {x}_i\) for coefficients \(c_i\), and the version space may be restricted appropriately. Note that the error of a structured model induced from a weight vector in version space may still be large for randomly chosen query points (i.e. high generalization error) in spite of achieving zero loss on the training set.

Typically, version space is only summarized by a single point such as the center of the largest inscribed sphere (the hard-margin SVM) or the center of mass of the version space (the Bayes point machine [26]). To learn an ensemble of classifiers, our goal is to distribute M weight vectors \(\mathbf {w}_m \in \mathcal W\), \(m=1,\ldots ,M\), in version space such that the most diverse predictions on unseen points are obtained. To this end, it is sufficient for structured models with energy functions linear in \(\mathbf {w}\) – similar to flat linear classification [27] – to only investigate weight vectors on the unit sphere (i.e. \(\Vert \mathbf {w} \Vert _2 = 1\)): At prediction time, labelings are scored by the energy function of the structured model \(E(\mathbf {x}, \mathbf {y}) = \mathbf {w}^\top f(\mathbf {x}, \mathbf {y})\), where \(f(\mathbf {x}, \mathbf {y})\) is the joint feature function. Replacing \(\mathbf {w}\) by \(\lambda \mathbf {w}\), \(\lambda > 0\), still yields the same ordering of the labelings.

We hence have to solve an experimental design problem on parts of the unit sphere to get an ensemble of diverse structured models, in other words – disregarding training data – we want to evenly distribute M points on the unit sphere. The goal of experimental design [28, 29] is to select from a set of possible experiments/configurations/parameter settings the subset with greatest expected merit. In our case, the set of experiments to choose from is the sphere \(||\mathbf {w} ||_2 = 1\). In other words, rather than sample the sphere uniformly, we need to bias our experimental design towards parameters that produce low empirical loss. Hence, we next introduce the repulsive diversity energy term \(\varGamma (W)\) which makes Eq. (1) a non-convex optimization problem, which we optimize approximately.

3.2 Diversity Through Coulomb Potential

Distributing M points evenly on the unit sphere is much studied in information theory and is known as a spherical code [30]: Different variants include sphere packing (maximize the minimal angle between any two parameter vectors) and covering problems (minimize the distance between any point on the sphere and the closest parameter vector). In three dimensions, the problem is known as the Thomson problem 2: The goal is to minimize the energy configuration of M charges on a unit sphere while the charges repel each other with forces determined by Coulomb’s law. While yet unsolved exactly, approximate solutions have been proposed in the literature, including spiral approximations [31], subdivisions of polyhedrons [32], or gradient descent methods [33, 34, 35] which correspond to electrostatic repulsion simulations exploiting Coulomb’s law: Particles of equal charge repel each other with a force proportional to the square of their pairwise distance, the Coulomb force. More generally, in the equilibrium state of the M particles \(\mathbf p_1,\ldots ,\mathbf p_M\) on the unit sphere, the Riesz energy,
$$\begin{aligned} E_s(\mathbf p_1,\ldots ,\mathbf p_M) = \sum _{i=1}^M \sum _{j=1, j\ne i}^M \frac{1}{\Vert \mathbf p_i - \mathbf p_j \Vert _2^s} \quad \text {s.t.}\ \Vert \mathbf p_i \Vert _2^2 = 1 \ \forall i \end{aligned}$$
is minimal. In the following, we set \(s=1\) which yields the Coulomb energy \(E_C = E_1\). The Coulomb force which affects particle \(\mathbf p_i\) amounts to the negative gradient vector of Eq. (3) w.r.t. \(\mathbf p_i\) [33, 35, 36] and is given by
$$\begin{aligned} \bar{F}^C_i = - \frac{\partial E_C}{\partial \mathbf p_i} (\mathbf p_1,\ldots ,\mathbf p_M) = - \sum _{j=1,j\ne i}^N \frac{\mathbf p_j - \mathbf p_i}{\Vert \mathbf p_i - \mathbf p_j \Vert _2^3} = \sum _{j=1,j\ne i}^N \frac{\mathbf e_{ij}}{\Vert \mathbf p_i - \mathbf p_j\Vert _2^2}, \end{aligned}$$
where \(\mathbf e_{ij}\) is the unit vector from \(\mathbf p_i\) to \(\mathbf p_j\). Projecting the resultant of force \(\bar{F}^C_i\) on \(\mathbf p_i\) back to the unit sphere by the projection \(\mathcal P(\mathbf p) = \frac{\mathbf p}{ \Vert \mathbf p \Vert }\) yields the projected gradient descent update on \(\mathbf p_i\), namely \(\mathbf p_i' = \mathcal P(\mathbf p_i + \bar{F}^C_i)\).

3.3 Optimization by an Electrostatic Repulsion Model

In the following, we will specify the diversity term \(\varGamma (W)\) in Eq. (1) and minimize it by utilizing the electrostatic repulsion simulation from the previous section. As derived in Sect. 3.1, the magnitudes of vectors \(\mathbf {w}_m\) do not contribute to the diversity term \(\varGamma (W)\). Thus, we project the weight vectors to the unit sphere, i.e. \(\bar{\mathbf {w}}_m = \frac{\mathbf {w}_m}{\Vert \mathbf w_m\Vert }\), and use the Coulomb energy \(E_C\) as the diversity term3 in Eq. (1),
$$\begin{aligned} \varGamma (\mathbf {w}_1,\ldots \mathbf {w}_M) = E_C(\bar{\mathbf {w}}_1,\ldots ,\bar{\mathbf {w}}_M). \end{aligned}$$
Note that the weights in both the regularizer \(\varOmega (W)\) and the risk \(R_M(W, \mathcal D)\) are not constrained to the unit sphere.
Fig. 2.

Optimization. In each iteration of the subgradient algorithm, the current weights w of the competing M learners (here: 2) are projected to the unit sphere, \(\bar{w}\), their Coulomb forces (green) are computed, and the resultant weight updates \(\mathcal P(\bar{w} + \alpha \bar{F})\) are projected from the unit sphere to the original weight vectors w, yielding \(F^C\) (pink). Independently, the negative gradient of the regularized risk determines forces \(F^{RR}\) (blue). Added together, \(F^{RR}\) and \(F^C\) yield the update F of the weight vector (red). (Color figure online)

In Sect. 3.2, we derived the projected Coulomb forces which act on the point \(\bar{\mathbf {w}}_m\) on the unit sphere. This update step can be projected to \(\mathbf {w}_m\) utilizing the intercept theorem (cf. Fig. 2),
$$\begin{aligned} F^C_m = \Vert \mathbf {w}_m \Vert _2^2 \cdot \mathcal P(\bar{\mathbf {w}}_m + \alpha \bar{F}^C_m). \end{aligned}$$
Next, let us derive force \(F_m^{RR}\) which acts on particle \(\mathbf {w}_m\) according to the regularized risk \(\varOmega (W) + C\cdot R_M(W,\mathcal D)\) in Eq. (1). The regularized risk in a structured SVM can be minimized using subgradient methods [38] and the negative subgradient for the learner m amounts to the force \(F_m^{RR}\), i.e. the direction to go in the next optimization step when only considering the regularized risk. The L2 regularized risk of one learner is given by \(R_1(\mathbf {w}_m, \mathcal D) = \frac{1}{2} \Vert \mathbf {w}_m \Vert _2^2 + \frac{C}{N} \sum _{k=1}^N L(\mathbf {x}_k, \mathbf {y}_k; \mathbf {w}_m)\). When choosing the structured hinge loss \(L(\mathbf {x}_k,\mathbf {y}_k; \mathbf {w}_m) = \max _{\mathbf {y} \in \mathcal Y} \left( \varDelta (\mathbf {y}_k,\mathbf y) - \mathbf {w}_m^\top f(\mathbf {x}_k,\mathbf {y}) \right) + \mathbf {w}_m^\top f(\mathbf {x}_k,\mathbf {y}_k)\), where \(\varDelta (\mathbf {y}_k, \mathbf {y})\) is the task loss, f the feature function, and \((\mathbf {x}_k,\mathbf {y}_k)\) are the training examples; then the subgradient \(\mathbf {g}^m_k\) for training example k is given by
$$\begin{aligned} \hat{\mathbf {y}}^m&= \max _{\mathbf {y} \in \mathcal Y} \left( \varDelta (\mathbf {y}_k,\mathbf y) - \mathbf {w}_m^\top f(\mathbf {x}_k,\mathbf {y})) \right) + \mathbf {w}_m^\top f(\mathbf {x}_k,\mathbf {y}_k), \nonumber \\ \mathbf {g}^m_k&= f(\mathbf {x}_k,\mathbf y_k) - f(\mathbf {x}_k, \hat{\mathbf {y}}^m), \end{aligned}$$
i.e. the regularized risk force on particle \(\mathbf {w}_m\) is \(F_m^{RR} = - \frac{1}{N} \sum _{k=1}^N \mathbf {g}^m_k\).
Finally, all forces acting on \(\mathbf {w}_m\) can be summed to the total force \(F_m\) which determines the next update of \(\mathbf {w}_m\): \(F_m = F_m^{RR} + F^C_m\). In other words, defining \(\eta _t\) as the step size at iteration t and \(\mathbf {g}_l^m\) as in Eq. (7), then the update of \(\mathbf {w}_m\) is given by
$$\begin{aligned} \mathbf {w}_m'&\leftarrow \mathbf {w}_m - \eta _t \big (\mathbf {w}_m + \frac{C}{N} \sum \nolimits _{k=1}^N \mathbf {g}_k^m - F^C_m\big ), \quad \text {or: } \end{aligned}$$
$$\begin{aligned} \mathbf {w}_m'&\leftarrow \mathbf {w}_m - \eta _t \left( \mathbf {w}_m + C \mathbf {g}_l^m - F^C_m \right) , \end{aligned}$$
where the latter is the update in the stochastic subgradient algorithm with a random \(l \in \{1,\ldots ,N\}\). Note that element \([\mathbf {w}_m']_i\) may be projected to zero to guarantee submodular energies during training as proved in [39]. For initialization of the CSSVM, we train one SSVM to get the optimum \(\mathbf {w}_*\). Then M random perturbations of \(\mathbf {w}_*\) give starting points for \(\mathbf {w}_1,\ldots \mathbf {w}_M\).

3.4 Extension: Structured Clustering

Our model suggests a straightforward extension to structured clustering: In the stochastic subgradient update given in Eq. (8), a random training sample is chosen for each learner to update the weight vector. Instead of random selection, a steered selection of training samples for each individual learner would increase diversity. Similarly to the structured K-means block-coordinate descent algorithm proposed in [6], we assign training examples to individual learners: After each subgradient iteration in Sect. 3.3, the task losses \(\varDelta (\mathbf {y}^m,\mathbf y_i; \mathbf {w}_m)\) between prediction \(\mathbf {y}^m\) and ground truth \(\mathbf {y}_i\) are computed for each learner m, \(m \in \{1,\ldots ,M\}\), and normalized over all learners, i.e. \(\pi _i^m = \frac{\varDelta (y^m,y_i;\mathbf {w}_m)}{\sum _{k=1}^M \varDelta (y^k,y_i; \mathbf {w}_k)}, \ \sum _m \pi _i^m = 1\).

Training example i is then assigned to any of the M learners according to some indicator vector \(\sigma (\varvec{\pi }_i)\), where \([\sigma (\varvec{\pi }_i)]_m = 1\) if training sample i is assigned to learner m, 0 otherwise. In Table 1, we propose different alternatives for the mapping \(\sigma (\cdot )\). The subgradient update step in Eq. (8) is then modified accordingly:
$$\begin{aligned} {\mathbf {w}}_m' \leftarrow {\mathbf {w}}_m - \eta _t \big ({\mathbf {w}}_m + \frac{C}{\sum _{j=1}^N \left[ \sigma ({\varvec{\pi }}_j)\right] _m} \sum _{j=1}^N [\sigma ({\varvec{\pi }}_j)]_m \cdot {\mathbf {g}}_j^m - F^C_m\big ). \end{aligned}$$
Fig. 3.

Top: Hamming losses on the respective datasets of the iCoseg database averaged after cross-validation (lower is better): Each fold consists of exactly one image. We train our model, MCL [6], and DivMCL [7] on one fold, validate on three other folds, and take the remaining \(N_c-4\) folds as test folds, the errors of which we report. For each test example, we compute the M task losses of the predictions to the ground truth, report the minimum as the pick best error (line), and mark the averages of the second, third, etc. best errors in the graphs. In other words, the line represents the losses which an oracle achieves when selecting always the best out of the M predictions. Note that the average error when always selecting the prediction with highest task error (i.e. the worst prediction), is constantly lower in our model than in the competing MCL and DivMCL. Bottom left: Frequency of how often model \(\#i\), \(i \in \{1,\ldots ,M\}\), generates the best test prediction; here \(M=10\), speed-skating dataset. Note that in our algorithm, there is no dominant model and each of the M models achieves the pick-best error on a reasonable number of test samples, whereas in MCL and DivMCL the pick-best losses are attributed to only one or few models, respectively. Bottom right: Frequencies of task losses achieved among all test folds and models. All models in our CSSVM ensemble yield predominantly low losses whereas in Div-/MCL many predictions are useless.

4 Experiments and Results

To evaluate the performance of our approach, we run experiments on three challenging tasks from computer vision: (i) co-segmentation, (ii) foreground/background segmentation, and (iii) semantic segmentation. We use the iCoseg [40] database for (i) and (ii) and PASCAL VOC 2010 [41] for (iii). Note that for clearer comparison with previous work, we focus on the evaluation of our first stage model usually used in a two stage pipeline. The proposed method can be combined with any second stage model [10, 11, 12, 13, 42, 43, 44].

We implemented our algorithm in Python using the PyStruct [45] framework. The code is made available on On all three tasks, we are comparing our results with the state-of-the-art diversity inducing methods Multiple Choice Learning [6] (MCL) and Diverse Multiple Choice Learning [7] (DivMCL), the Matlab implementations of which as well as their features/splitting criterions for the iCoseg dataset in task (ii) were kindly provided by the authors. The energies for tasks (i) and (ii) are submodular, and we thus use graph-cut as inference method; for the multi-label problem in (iii), we utilize TRWS [46].

Generating M diverse outputs is particularly useful in early stages of cascaded approaches, where at a later stage, e.g. a human or a second complex model may choose the best of M predictions according to a higher-order loss function. The goal of our approach is, hence, to generate M diverse predictions some of which ought to achieve better task loss than the prediction of the single max-margin model. We therefore stick to the evaluation criterion as applied in prior works, where an oracle chooses the best out of M predictions. In this way, we can evaluate the usefulness of such an approach for cascade models. We relate to this loss as pick best error, i.e. the lowest task loss among the M predictions.

(i) Co-Segmentation. The design of the proposed CSSVM allows to learn an ensemble of diverse models on very small training sets, in fact, even on training sets which consist of one structured training example only. To demonstrate the usefulness of our approach on such tasks, we run experiments on a co-segmentation dataset. The goal in co-segmentation in general is the simultaneous segmentation of two images each containing similar objects [47]. In our experiments, we assume that a model can be learned on the annotations of one image to predict the segmentation of similar images. We choose six categories from the iCoseg database and use the superpixels and features from [7], their 12-dim. color features for the nodes and a contrast-sensitive and -insensitive Potts term for the edges.

The results for MCL, DivMCL, and our model are depicted in Fig. 3. For each category, we vary the number of models in the ensemble M from 1 to 10, where \(M=1\) may be viewed as the baseline and corresponds to the training of a standard SSVM. We perform a full \(N_c\)-fold crossvalidation on each category, where \(N_c\) is the number of images in category c, and report the test losses of all M models. We choose the regularization and diversity trade-off parameters of each method on a hold-out validation set consisting of three images per category. Note that these losses are computed on superpixel level rather than pixel level which makes for a fair comparison since all three models are using the same superpixels and features. In these datasets, \(N_c\)’s are in the range of 10 to 33, dependent on the dataset. Obviously, we use strategy “all” from Table 1 for these experiments.

It should be noted that, if we took the same implementations, exactly the same losses for all three competing models for \(M=1\) would be obtained (since all three models are direct generalizations of SSVM). The deviations here are probably due to different optimization strategies, e.g. different minima on a plateau or not enough iterations for the subgradient method (Div-/MCL use cutting-plane optimization instead).

On all six datasets, our method clearly improves over the baseline of only one SSVM (\(M=1\)) and achieves better pick-best errors for large M than MCL and DivMCL do, with the exception of the speed-skating category. We show for this category exemplarily, however, that our algorithm learns M models which are all performing similarly well while in DivMCL only few models are strong, and in MCL, there exists only one strong model since diversity is only encouraged by assigning the training samples (here: 1) to specific models (shown for \(M=10\) in bottom left of Fig. 3). The phenomenon that our method yields significantly better average errors across all predictors in the ensemble is also reflected in the histogram of all losses from the full cross validation, as provided in Fig. 3 bottom right. The fact that most of the predictions achieve low loss in the proposed CSSVM is a strong advantage when the model is used in a cascade model since all predictions are good candidates to be selected as the best solution.

Example images for \(M=10\) are presented in Fig. 5. Note that for CSSVM, all models in the ensemble achieve similar training performances while yielding high diversity on the test images. By design, diversity on the training samples is not rewarded but models are distributed diversely in version space as argued in Sect. 3.1 in order to achieve a low generalization error on unseen data when the predictions of all M models are considered jointly. This is in contrast to the competing methods, where diversity among the models is also enforced on the training set.
Fig. 4.

Foreground/background Segmentation (iCoseg). Average pick-best error (Hamming distance, lower is better) on the set of all categories. Shown are the test errors with one standard deviation (error bars are slightly perturbed on the x-axis for illustration purposes). Our training sample assignment strategies are denoted as in Table 1.

Table 1.

Possible mappings for the assignment of training samples to individual learners

\([\sigma (\varvec{\pi }_i)]_m =\)




Assign the sample i to every learner \(m \in \{1,\ldots ,M\}\), i.e. Eq. (8)


Open image in new window

Assign the sample i to the learner m which achieves the best task loss


Open image in new window

Sample a learner index \(\hat{m}\) from the distribution defined by \(q_i^1,\ldots q_i^M\) and assign the sample i to learner \(\hat{m}\); here, \(q_i^m = \frac{1 - \pi _i^m}{\sum _j (1 - \pi _j^m)},\ \sum _m q_i^m = 1\)


Open image in new window

Sample one training example index \(\hat{j}_m \in \{1,\ldots ,N\}\) for each learner \(m\in \{1,\ldots ,M\}\), i.e. Eq. (9)


(ii) Foreground/Background Segmentation. In this experiment, we use all these categories together (166 images in total) and use the same split criterion for the 5-fold cross validation as in [7]. We train the models on one fold, select regularization and diversity trade off parameters on two validation folds and report the test error on the remaining two folds. Figure 4 presents the results for MCL, DivMCL, and our model with different sample assignment strategies as in Table 1. Since this dataset consists of different categories, it seems natural that the models which cluster the training data by assigning training instances to distinct models (as in Div-/MCL, Ours-sampled, and Ours-best) perform better than the models which try to fit all M models to the entire dataset (Ours-all, Ours-stochastic). Our model achieves similar accuracies as the state-of-the-art method DivMCL in this experiment.

(iii) Semantic Segmentation. We also evaluate our algorithm on the PASCAL VOC 2010 benchmark dataset for object class segmentation (challenge 5). The dataset consists of an official training set and validation set comprising 964 images each, which contain 21 object classes. We use the SLIC superpixels and Textonboost potentials [48] publicly available from [45]. Due to the lack of a publicly available test set, we are selecting the parameters of all three models on the official validation set and report these validation errors in Table 2 using the PASCAL VOC evaluation criterion, the Jaccard index. For structured learning, all models use a loss weighted by the inverse class frequency present in the training data. The baselines for this experiment are given by an \({{\mathrm{arg\,max}}}\) operation on our features (“unaries only”), a linear SVM on the unary features, and a structured SVM (\(M=1\)). With these publicly available features, these baselines achieve average accuracies of \(21.6\,\%\), \(27.4\,\%\), and \(29.1\,\%\) which is much lower than the current best results reported on this challenge. In this experiment, however, we want to focus on how much a baseline algorithm can be improved thanks to a diverse ensemble, and not indulge in feature and pipeline tuning.

By training \(M=6\) diverse models and selecting the best predictions amongst them according to the ground truth, all three competing methods yield significantly higher pick-best accuracies than a single SSVM. We can even improve the accuracy from \(29.1\,\%\) to \(37.6\,\%\) with the assignment strategy “best” (cf. Table 1). This massive relative improvement underlines the usefulness of a diverse ensemble approach. MCL (\(35.0\,\%\)) and DivMCL (\(34.5\,\%\)) yield inferior performance.
Fig. 5.

Foreground/background Co-segmentation (white/black, respectively). The single training image in each dataset is marked in yellow, the best prediction is framed in green. Note that all \(M=10\) models of CSSVM fit the training images similarly well, whereas high diversity amongst the M models is present in the predictions of the test set. GT stands for ground truth.

Table 2.

Pascal VOC 2010 Validation Accuracy (higher is better). We tune a popular conditional random field [45] as baseline structured models (top rows). We here focus on the relative improvement that different diversity strategies can achieve (bottom rows), rather than tweaking the baseline model itself.

5 Conclusion

We propose an algorithm termed the Coulomb structured support vector machine which learns an ensemble of multiple models in order to yield diverse predictions on test data. The diversity prior is imposed on the set of model weights rather than on the outputs of training samples as in previous approaches. This allows for the training of diverse models even on a single structured training example. The CSSVM trades off diversity, large margins, and a data term during training in order to optimize the minimum expected generalization error of the entire ensemble. The coupling between the M models is effective only at training but not at test time. As a consequence, predictions can be made in parallel without communication overhead in contrast to [5]. Our algorithm learns multiple strong predictors in an ensemble on the entire dataset, other than [6, 7] where predictors ’focus’ on the different clusters in the data, if present. We demonstrate on numerous real world datasets that the M diverse outputs of the proposed ensemble method include predictions with significantly lower task loss compared to only one model. Moreover, our approach of inducing diversity significantly improves over state-of-the-art methods on very small training sets while staying on par with the state-of-the-art methods on bigger training sets. The usefulness for machine learning tasks beyond computer vision is evident.


  1. 1.

    Note that this is almost always true once we have a sufficient number of independent features, see the function counting theorem [23].

  2. 2.

    Note that we want to approximate this problem in a high dimensional space instead of only 3 dimensions.

  3. 3.

    Note that we assume electrostatic charges on the parameters, and not the training samples as done in [37].



We would like to thank Abner Guzman-Rivera for making the (Div)MCL source code available.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Heidelberg, IWR/HCIHeidelbergGermany
  2. 2.Robert Bosch GmbHStuttgartGermany

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