Boosting algorithm: AdaBoost

As a data scientist in consumer industry, what I usually feel is, boosting algorithms are quite enough for most of the predictive learning tasks, at least by now. They are powerful, flexible and can be interpreted nicely with some tricks. Thus, I think it is necessary to read through some materials and write something about the boosting algorithms.

Most of the content in this acticle is based on the paper: Tree Boosting With XGBoost: Why Does XGBoost Win “Every” Machine Learning Competition?. It is a really informative paper. Almost everything regarding boosting algorithms is explained very clearly in the paper. So the paper contains 110 pages :(

For me, I will basically focus on the three most popular boosting algorithms: AdaBoost, GBM and XGBoost. I have divided the content into two parts. The first article (this one) will focus on AdaBoost algorithm, and the second one will turn to the comparison between GBM and XGBoost.


AdaBoost, short for “Adaptive Boosting”, is the first practical boosting algorithm proposed by Freund and Schapire in 1996. It focuses on classification problems and aims to convert a set of weak classifiers into a strong one. The final equation for classification can be represented as

where f_m stands for the m_th weak classifier and theta_m is the corresponding weight. It is exactly the weighted combination of M weak classifiers. The whole procedure of the AdaBoost algorithm can be summarized as follow.

AdaBoost algorithm

Given a data set containing n points, where

Here -1 denotes the negative class while 1 represents the positive one.

Initialize the weight for each data point as:

For iteration m=1,…,M:

(1) Fit weak classifiers to the data set and select the one with the lowest weighted classification error:

(2) Calculate the weight for the m_th weak classifier:

For any classifier with accuracy higher than 50%, the weight is positive. The more accurate the classifier, the larger the weight. While for the classifer with less than 50% accuracy, the weight is negative. It means that we combine its prediction by flipping the sign. For example, we can turn a classifier with 40% accuracy into 60% accuracy by flipping the sign of the prediction. Thus even the classifier performs worse than random guessing, it still contributes to the final prediction. We only don’t want any classifier with exact 50% accuracy, which doesn’t add any information and thus contributes nothing to the final prediction.

(3) Update the weight for each data point as:

where Z_m is a normalization factor that ensures the sum of all instance weights is equal to 1.

If a misclassified case is from a positive weighted classifier, the “exp” term in the numerator would be always larger than 1 (y*f is always -1, theta_m is positive). Thus misclassified cases would be updated with larger weights after an iteration. The same logic applies to the negative weighted classifiers. The only difference is that the original correct classifications would become misclassifications after flipping the sign.

After M iteration we can get the final prediction by summing up the weighted prediction of each classifier.

AdaBoost as a Forward Stagewise Additive Model

This part is based on paper: Additive logistic regression: a statistical view of boosting. For more detailed information, please refer to the original paper.

In 2000, Friedman et al. developed a statistical view of the AdaBoost algorithm. They interpreted AdaBoost as stagewise estimation procedures for fitting an additive logistic regression model. They showed that AdaBoost was actually minimizing the exponential loss function

It is minimized at

Since for AdaBoost, y can only be -1 or 1, the loss function can be rewritten as

Continue to solve for F(x), we get

We can further derive the normal logistic model from the optimal solution of F(x):

It is almost identical to the logistic regression model despite of a factor 2.

Suppose we have a current estimate of F(x) and try to seek an improved estimate F(x)+cf(x). For fixed c and x, we can expand L(y, F(x)+cf(x)) to second order about f(x)=0,


where E_w(.|x) indicates a weighted conditional expectation and the weight for each data point is calculated as

If c > 0, minimizing the weighted conditional expectation is equal to maximizing

Since y can only be 1 or -1, the weighted expectation can be rewritten as

The optimal solution comes as

After determining f(x), the weight c can be calculated by directly minimizing L(y, F(x)+cf(x)):

Solving for c, we get

Let epsilon equals to the weighted sum of misclassified cases, then

Note that c can be negative if the weak learner does worse than random guess (50%), in which case it automatically reverses the polarity.

In terms of instance weights, after the improved addition, the weight for a single instance becomes,

Thus the instance weight is updated as

Compared with those used in AdaBoost algorithm,

we can see they are in identical form. Therefore, it is reasonable to interpret AdaBoost as a forward stagewise additive model with exponential loss function, which iteratively fits a weak classifier to improve the current estimate at each iteration m: