Not the Path to Perdition: The Utility of Similarity-Based Learning

Michael Lebowitz

A large portion of the research in machine learning has involved a paradigm of comparing many examples and analyzing them in terms of similarities and differences, assuming that the resulting generalizations will have applicability to new examples. While such research has been very successful, it is by no means obvious why similarity-based generalizations should be useful, since they may simply reflect coincidences. Proponents of explanation-based learning, a new, knowledge-intensive method of examining single examples to derive generalizations based on underlying causal models, could contend that their methods are more fundamentally grounded, and that there is no need to look for similarities across examples. In this paper, we present the issues, and then show why similarity-based methods are important. We present four reasons why robust machine learning must involve the integration of similarity-based and explanation-based methods. We argue that: 1) it may not always be practical or even possible to determine a causal explanation; 2) similarity usually implies causality; 3) similarity-based generalizations can be refined over time; 4) similarity-based and explanation-based methods complement each other in important ways.

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