# Zero-One Laws for Random Graphs

Last time we saw a number of properties of graphs, such as connectivity, where the probability that an Erdős–Rényi random graph $G(n,p)$ satisfies the property is asymptotically either zero or one. And this zero or one depends on whether the parameter $p$ is above or below a universal threshold (that depends only on $n$ and the property in question).

To remind the reader, the Erdős–Rényi random “graph” $G(n,p)$ is a distribution over graphs that you draw from by including each edge independently with probability $p$. Last time we saw that the existence of an isolated vertex has a sharp threshold at $(\log n) / n$, meaning if $p$ is asymptotically smaller than the threshold there will certainly be isolated vertices, and if $p$ is larger there will certainly be no isolated vertices. We also gave a laundry list of other properties with such thresholds.

One might want to study this phenomenon in general. Even if we might not be able to find all the thresholds we want for a given property, can we classify which properties have thresholds and which do not?

The answer turns out to be mostly yes! For large classes of properties, there are proofs that say things like, “either this property holds with probability tending to one, or it holds with probability tending to zero.” These are called “zero-one laws,” and they’re sort of meta theorems. We’ll see one such theorem in this post relating to constant edge-probabilities in random graphs, and we’ll remark on another at the end.

## Sentences about graphs in first order logic

A zero-one law generally works by defining a class of properties, and then applying a generic first/second moment-type argument to every property in the class.

So first we define what kinds of properties we’ll discuss. We’ll pick a large class: anything that can be expressed in first-order logic in the language of graphs. That is, any finite logical statement that uses existential and universal quantifiers over variables, and whose only relation (test) is whether an edge exists between two vertices. We’ll call this test $e(x,y)$. So you write some sentence $P$ in this language, and you take a graph $G$, and you can ask $P(G) = 1$, whether the graph satisfies the sentence.

This seems like a really large class of properties, and it is, but let’s think carefully about what kinds of properties can be expressed this way. Clearly the existence of a triangle can be written this way, it’s just the sentence

$\exists x,y,z : e(x,y) \wedge e(y,z) \wedge e(x,z)$

I’m using $\wedge$ for AND, and $\vee$ for OR, and $\neg$ for NOT. Similarly, one can express the existence of a clique of size $k$, or the existence of an independent set of size $k$, or a path of a fixed length, or whether there is a vertex of maximal degree $n-1$.

Here’s a question: can we write a formula which will be true for a graph if and only if it’s connected? Well such a formula seems like it would have to know about how many vertices there are in the graph, so it could say something like “for all $x,y$ there is a path from $x$ to $y$.” It seems like you’d need a family of such formulas that grows with $n$ to make anything work. But this isn’t a proof; the question remains whether there is some other tricky way to encode connectivity.

But as it turns out, connectivity is not a formula you can express in propositional logic. We won’t prove it here, but we will note at the end of the article that connectivity is in a different class of properties that you can prove has a similar zero-one law.

## The zero-one law for first order logic

So the theorem about first-order expressible sentences is as follows.

Theorem: Let $P$ be a property of graphs that can be expressed in the first order language of graphs (with the $e(x,y)$ relation). Then for any constant $p$, the probability that $P$ holds in $G(n,p)$ has a limit of zero or one as $n \to \infty$.

Proof. We’ll prove the simpler case of $p=1/2$, but the general case is analogous. Given such a graph $G$ drawn from $G(n,p)$, what we’ll do is define a countably infinite family of propositional formulas $\varphi_{k,l}$, and argue that they form a sort of “basis” for all first-order sentences about graphs.

First let’s describe the $\varphi_{k,l}$. For any $k,l \in \mathbb{N}$, the sentence will assert that for every set of $k$ vertices and every set of $l$ vertices, there is some other vertex connected to the first $k$ but not the last $l$.

$\displaystyle \varphi_{k,l} : \forall x_1, \dots, x_k, y_1, \dots, y_l \exists z : \\ e(z,x_1) \wedge \dots \wedge e(z,x_k) \wedge \neg e(z,y_1) \wedge \dots \wedge \neg e(z,y_l)$.

In other words, these formulas encapsulate every possible incidence pattern for a single vertex. It is a strange set of formulas, but they have a very nice property we’re about to get to. So for a fixed $\varphi_{k,l}$, what is the probability that it’s false on $n$ vertices? We want to give an upper bound and hence show that the formula is true with probability approaching 1. That is, we want to show that all the $\varphi_{k,l}$ are true with probability tending to 1.

Computing the probability: we have $\binom{n}{k} \binom{n-k}{l}$ possibilities to choose these sets, and the probability that some other fixed vertex $z$ has the good connections is $2^{-(k+l)}$ so the probability $z$ is not good is $1 - 2^{-(k+l)}$, and taking a product over all choices of $z$ gives the probability that there is some bad vertex $z$ with an exponent of $(n - (k + l))$. Combining all this together gives an upper bound of $\varphi_{k,l}$ being false of:

$\displaystyle \binom{n}{k}\binom{n-k}{l} (1-2^{-k-1})^{n-k-l}$

And $k, l$ are constant, so the left two terms are polynomials while the rightmost term is an exponentially small function, and this implies that the whole expression tends to zero, as desired.

Break from proof.

## A bit of model theory

So what we’ve proved so far is that the probability of every formula of the form $\varphi_{k,l}$ being satisfied in $G(n,1/2)$ tends to 1.

Now look at the set of all such formulas

$\displaystyle \Phi = \{ \varphi_{k,l} : k,l \in \mathbb{N} \}$

We ask: is there any graph which satisfies all of these formulas? Certainly it cannot be finite, because a finite graph would not be able to satisfy formulas with sufficiently large values of $l, k > n$. But indeed, there is a countably infinite graph that works. It’s called the Rado graph, pictured below.

The Rado graph has some really interesting properties, such as that it contains every finite and countably infinite graph as induced subgraphs. Basically this means, as far as countably infinite graphs go, it’s the big momma of all graphs. It’s the graph in a very concrete sense of the word. It satisfies all of the formulas in $\Phi$, and in fact it’s uniquely determined by this, meaning that if any other countably infinite graph satisfies all the formulas in $\Phi$, then that graph is isomorphic to the Rado graph.

But for our purposes (proving a zero-one law), there’s a better perspective than graph theory on this object. In the logic perspective, the set $\Phi$ is called a theory, meaning a set of statements that you consider “axioms” in some logical system. And we’re asking whether there any model realizing the theory. That is, is there some logical system with a semantic interpretation (some mathematical object based on numbers, or sets, or whatever) that satisfies all the axioms?

A good analogy comes from the rational numbers, because they satisfy a similar property among all ordered sets. In fact, the rational numbers are the unique countable, ordered set with the property that it has no biggest/smallest element and is dense. That is, in the ordering there is always another element between any two elements you want. So the theorem says if you have two countable sets with these properties, then they are actually isomorphic as ordered sets, and they are isomorphic to the rational numbers.

So, while we won’t prove that the Rado graph is a model for our theory $\Phi$, we will use that fact to great benefit. One consequence of having a theory with a model is that the theory is consistent, meaning it can’t imply any contradictions. Another fact is that this theory $\Phi$ is complete. Completeness means that any formula or it’s negation is logically implied by the theory. Note these are syntactical implications (using standard rules of propositional logic), and have nothing to do with the model interpreting the theory.

The proof that $\Phi$ is complete actually follows from the uniqueness of the Rado graph as the only countable model of $\Phi$. Suppose the contrary, that $\Phi$ is not consistent, then there has to be some formula $\psi$ that is not provable, and it’s negation is also not provable, by starting from $\Phi$. Now extend $\Phi$ in two ways: by adding $\psi$ and by adding $\neg \psi$. Both of the new theories are still countable, and by a theorem from logic this means they both still have countable models. But both of these new models are also countable models of $\Phi$, so they have to both be the Rado graph. But this is very embarrassing for them, because we assumed they disagree on the truth of $\psi$.

So now we can go ahead and prove the zero-one law theorem.

Given an arbitrary property $\varphi \not \in \Psi$. Now either $\varphi$ or it’s negation can be derived from $\Phi$. Without loss of generality suppose it’s $\varphi$. Take all the formulas from the theory you need to derive $\varphi$, and note that since it is a proof in propositional logic you will only finitely many such $\varphi_{k,l}$. Now look at the probabilities of the $\varphi_{k,l}$: they are all true with probability tending to 1, so the implied statement of the proof of $\varphi$ (i.e., $\varphi$ itself) must also hold with probability tending to 1. And we’re done!

$\square$

If you don’t like model theory, there is another “purely combinatorial” proof of the zero-one law using something called Ehrenfeucht–Fraïssé games. It is a bit longer, though.

## Other zero-one laws

One might naturally ask two questions: what if your probability is not constant, and what other kinds of properties have zero-one laws? Both great questions.

For the first, there are some extra theorems. I’ll just describe one that has always seemed very strange to me. If your probability is of the form $p = n^{-\alpha}$ but $\alpha$ is irrational, then the zero-one law still holds! This is a theorem of Baldwin-Shelah-Spencer, and it really makes you wonder why irrational numbers would be so well behaved while rational numbers are not 🙂

For the second question, there is another theorem about monotone properties of graphs. Monotone properties come in two flavors, so called “increasing” and “decreasing.” I’ll describe increasing monotone properties and the decreasing counterpart should be obvious. A property is called monotone increasing if adding edges can never destroy the property. That is, with an empty graph you don’t have the property (or maybe you do), and as you start adding edges eventually you suddenly get the property, but then adding more edges can’t cause you to lose the property again. Good examples of this include connectivity, or the existence of a triangle.

So the theorem is that there is an identical zero-one law for monotone properties. Great!

It’s not so often that you get to see these neat applications of logic and model theory to graph theory and (by extension) computer science. But when you do get to apply them they seem very powerful and mysterious. I think it’s a good thing.

Until next time!

# The Giant Component and Explosive Percolation

Last time we left off with a tantalizing conjecture: a random graph with edge probability $p = 5/n$ is almost surely a connected graph. We arrived at that conjecture from some ad-hoc data analysis, so let’s go back and treat it with some more rigorous mathematical techniques. As we do, we’ll discover some very interesting “threshold theorems” that essentially say a random graph will either certainly have a property, or it will certainly not have it.

The phase transition we empirically observed from last time.

## Big components

Recalling the basic definition: an Erdős-Rényi (ER) random graph with $n$ vertices and edge probability $p$ is a probability distribution over all graphs on $n$ vertices. Generatively, you draw from an ER distribution by flipping a $p$-biased coin for each pair of vertices, and adding the edge if you flip heads. We call the random event of drawing a graph from this distribution a “random graph” even though it’s not a graph, and we denote an ER random graph by $G(n,p)$. When $p = 1/2$, the distribution $G(n,1/2)$ is the uniform distribution over all graphs on $n$ vertices.

Now let’s get to some theorems. The main tools we’ll use are called the first and second moment method. Let’s illustrate them by example.

### The first moment method

Say we want to know what values of $p$ are likely to produce graphs with isolated vertices (vertices with no neighbors), and which are not. Of course, the value of $p$ will depend on $n \to \infty$ in general, but we can already see by example that if $p = 1/2$ then the probability of a fixed vertex being isolated is $2^{-n} \to 0$. We can use the union bound (sum this value over all vertices) to show that the probability of any vertex being isolated is at most $n2^{-n}$ which also tends to zero very quickly. This is not the first moment method, I’m just making the point that all of our results will be interpreted asymptotically as $n \to \infty$.

So now we can ask: what is the expected number of isolated vertices? If I call $X$ the random variable that counts the expected number of isolated vertices, then I’m asking about $\mathbb{E}[X]$. Really what I’m doing is interpreting $X$ as a random variable depending on $n, p(n)$, and asking about the evolution of $\mathbb{E}[X]$ as $n \to \infty$.

Now the first moment method states, somewhat obviously, that if the expectation tends to zero then the value of $X$ itself also tends to zero. Indeed, this follows from Markov’s inequality, which states that the probability that $X \geq a$ is bounded by $\mathbb{E}[X]/a$. In symbols,

$\displaystyle \Pr[X \geq a] \leq \frac{\mathbb{E}[X]}{a}$.

In our case $X$ is counting something (it’s integer valued), so asking whether $X > 0$ is equivalent to asking whether $X \geq 1$. The upper bound on the probability of $X$ being strictly positive is then just $\mathbb{E}[X]$.

So let’s find out when the expected number of isolated vertices goes to zero. We’ll use the wondrous linearity of expectation to split $X$ into a sum of counts for each vertex. That is, if $X_i$ is 1 when vertex $i$ is isolated and 0 otherwise (this is called an indicator variable), then $X = \sum_{i=1}^n X_i$ and linearity of expectation gives

$\displaystyle \mathbb{E}[X] = \mathbb{E}[\sum_{i=1}^n X_i] = \sum_{i=1}^n \mathbb{E}[X_i]$

Now the expectation of an indicator random variable is just the probability that the event occurs (it’s trivial to check). It’s easy to compute the probability that a vertex is isolated: it’s $(1-p)^n$. So the sum above works out to be $n(1-p)^n$. It should really be $n(1-p)^{n-1}$ but the extra factor of $(1-p)$ doesn’t change anything. The question is what’s the “smallest” way to set $p$ as a function of $n$ in order to make the above thing go to zero? Using the fact that $(1-x) < e^{-x}$ for all $x > 0$, we get

$n(1-p)^n < ne^{-pn}$

And setting $p = (\log n) / n$ simplifies the right hand side to $ne^{- \log n} = n / n = 1$. This is almost what we want, so let’s set $p$ to be anything that grows asymptotically faster than $(\log n) / n$. The notation for this is $\omega((\log n) / n)$. Then using some slick asymptotic notation we can prove that the RHS of the inequality above goes to zero, and so the LHS must as well. Back to the big picture: we just showed that the expectation of $X$ (the expected number of isolated vertices) goes to zero, and so by the first moment method the value of $X$ (the actual number of isolated vertices) has to go to zero with probability tending to 1.

Some quick interpretations: when $p = (\log n) / n$ each vertex has $\log n$ neighbors in expectation. Moreover, having no isolated vertices is just a little bit short of the entire graph being connected (our ultimate goal is to figure out exactly when this happens). But already we can see that our conjecture from the beginning is probably false: we aren’t able to use this same method to show that when $p = c/n$ for some constant $c$ rules out isolated vertices as $n \to \infty$. We just got lucky in our data analysis that 5 is about the natural log of 100 (which is 4.6).

### The second moment method

Now what about the other side of the coin? If $p$ is asymptotically less than $(\log n) / n$ do we necessarily get isolated vertices? That would really put our conjecture to rest. In this case the answer is yes, but it might not be in general. Let’s discuss.

We said that in general if $\mathbb{E}[X] \to 0$ then the value of $X$ has to go to zero too (that’s the first moment method). The flip side of this is: if $\mathbb{E}[X] \to \infty$ does necessarily the value of $X$ also tend to infinity? The answer is not always yes. Here is a gruesome example I originally heard from a book: say $X$ is the number of people that will die in the next decade due to an asteroid hitting the earth. The probability that the event happens is quite small, but if it does happen then the number of people that will die is quite large. It is perfectly reasonable for this to drag up the expectation (as the world population grows every decade), but at least we hope a growing population doesn’t by itself increase the value of $X$.

Mathematics is on our side here. We’re asking under what conditions on $\mathbb{E}[X]$ does the following implication hold: $\mathbb{E}[X] \to \infty$ implies $\Pr[X > 0] \to 1$.

With the first moment method we used Markov’s inequality (a statement about expectation, also called the first moment). With the second moment method we’ll use a statement about the second moment (variances), and the most common is Chebyshev’s inequality. Chebyshev’s inequality states that the probability $X$ deviates from its expectation by more than $c$ is bounded by $\textup{Var}[X] / c^2$. In symbols, for all $c > 0$ we have

$\displaystyle \Pr[|X - \mathbb{E}[X]| \geq c] \leq \frac{\textup{Var}[X]}{c^2}$

Now the opposite of $X > 0$, written in terms of deviation from expectation, is $|X - \mathbb{E}[X]| \geq \mathbb{E}[X]$. In words, in order for any number $a$ to be zero, it has to have a distance of at least $b$ from any number $b$. It’s such a stupidly simple statement it’s almost confusing. So then we’re saying that

$\displaystyle \Pr[X = 0] \leq \frac{\textup{Var}[X]}{\mathbb{E}[X]^2}$.

In order to make this probability go to zero, it’s enough to have $\textup{Var}[X] = o(\mathbb{E}[X]^2)$. Again, the little-o means “grows asymptotically slower than.” So the numerator of the fraction on the RHS will grow asymptotically slower than the denominator, meaning the whole fraction tends to zero. This condition and its implication are together called the “second moment method.”

Great! So we just need to compute $\textup{Var}[X]$ and check what conditions on $p$ make it fit the theorem. Recall that $\textup{Var}[X] = \mathbb{E}[X^2] - \mathbb{E}[X]^2$, and we want to upper bound this in terms of $\mathbb{E}[X]^2$. Let’s compute $\mathbb{E}[X]^2$ first.

$\displaystyle \mathbb{E}[X]^2 = n^2(1-p)^{2n}$

Now the variance.

$\displaystyle \textup{Var}[X] = \mathbb{E}[X^2] - n^2(1-p)^{2n}$

Expanding $X$ as a sum of indicator variables $X_i$ for each vertex, we can split the square into a sum over pairs. Note that $X_i^2 = X_i$ since they are 0-1 valued indicator variables, and $X_iX_j$ is the indicator variable for both events happening simultaneously.

\displaystyle \begin{aligned} \mathbb{E}[X^2] &= \mathbb{E}[\sum_{i,j} X_{i,j}] \\ &=\mathbb{E} \left [ \sum_i X_i^2 + \sum_{i \neq j} X_iX_j \right ] \\ &= \sum_i \mathbb{E}[X_i^2] + \sum_{i \neq j} \mathbb{E}[X_iX_j] \end{aligned}

By what we said about indicators, the last line is just

$\displaystyle \sum_i \Pr[i \textup{ is isolated}] + \sum_{i \neq j} \Pr[i,j \textup{ are both isolated}]$

And we can compute each of these pieces quite easily. They are (asymptotically ignoring some constants):

$\displaystyle n(1-p)^n + n^2(1-p)(1-p)^{2n-4}$

Now combining the two terms together (subtracting off the square of the expectation),

\displaystyle \begin{aligned} \textup{Var}[X] &\leq n(1-p)^n + n^2(1-p)^{-3}(1-p)^{2n} - n^2(1-p)^{2n} \\ &= n(1-p)^n + n^2(1-p)^{2n} \left ( (1-p)^{-3} - 1 \right ) \end{aligned}

Now we divide by $\mathbb{E}[X]^2$ to get $n^{-1}(1-p)^{-n} + (1-p)^{-3} - 1$. Since we’re trying to see if $p = (\log n) / n$ is a sharp threshold, the natural choice is to let $p = o((\log n) / n)$. Indeed, using the $1-x < e^{-x}$ upper bound and plugging in the little-o bounds the whole quantity by

$\displaystyle \frac{1}{n}e^{o(\log n)} + o(n^{1/n}) - 1 = o(1)$

i.e., the whole thing tends to zero, as desired.

## Other thresholds

So we just showed that the property of having no isolated vertices in a random graph has a sharp threshold at $p = (\log n) / n$. Meaning at any larger probability the graph is almost surely devoid of isolated vertices, and at any lower probability the graph almost surely has some isolated vertices.

This might seem like a miracle theorem, but there turns out to be similar theorems for lots of properties. Most of them you can also prove using basically the same method we’ve been using here. I’ll list some below. Also note they are all sharp, two-sided thresholds in the same way that the isolated vertex boundary is.

• The existence of a component of size $\omega(\log (n))$ has a threshold of $1/n$.
• $p = c/n$ for any $c > 0$ is a threshold for the existence of a giant component of linear size $\Theta(n)$. Moreover, above this threshold no other components will have size $\omega(\log n)$.
• In addition to $(\log n) / n$ being a threshold for having no isolated vertices, it is also a threshold for connectivity.
• $p = (\log n + \log \log n + c(n)) / n$ is a sharp threshold for the existence of Hamiltonian cycles in the following sense: if $c(n) = \omega(1)$ then there will be a Hamilton cycle almost surely, if $c(n) \to -\infty$ there will be no Hamiltonian cycle almost surely, and if $c(n) \to c$ the probability of a Hamiltonian cycle is $e^{-e^{-c}}$. This was proved by Kolmos and Szemeredi in 1983. Moreover, there is an efficient algorithm to find Hamiltonian cycles in these random graphs when they exist with high probability.

## Explosive Percolation

So now we know that as the probability of an edge increases, at some point the graph will spontaneously become connected; at some time that is roughly $\log(n)$ before, the so-called “giant component” will emerge and quickly engulf the entire graph.

Here’s a different perspective on this situation originally set forth by Achlioptas, D’Souza, and Spencer in 2009. It has since become called an “Achlioptas process.”

The idea is that you are watching a random graph grow. Rather than think about random graphs as having a probability above or below some threshold, you can think of it as the number of edges growing (so the thresholds will all be multiplied by $n$). Then you can imagine that you start with an empty graph, and at every time step someone is adding a new random edge to your graph. Fine, eventually you’ll get so many edges that a giant component emerges and you can measure when that happens.

But now imagine that instead of being given a single random new edge, you are given a choice. Say God presents you with two random edges, and you must pick which to add to your graph. Obviously you will eventually still get a giant component, but the question is how long can you prevent it from occurring? That is, how far back can we push the threshold for connectedness by cleverly selecting the new edge?

What Achlioptas and company conjectured was that you can push it back (some), but that when you push it back as far as it can go, the threshold becomes discontinuous. That is, they believed there was a constant $\delta \geq 1/2$ such that the size of the largest component jumps from $o(n)$ to $\delta n$ in $o(n)$ steps.

This turned out to be false, and Riordan and Warnke proved it. Nevertheless, the idea has been interpreted in an interesting light. People have claimed it is a useful model of disaster in the following sense. If you imagine that an edge between two vertices is a “crisis” relating two entities. Then in every step God presents you with two crises and you only have the resources to fix one. The idea is that when the entire graph is connected, you have this one big disaster where all the problems are interacting with each other. The percolation process describes how long you can “survive” while avoiding the big disaster.

There are critiques of this interpretation, though, mainly about how simplistic it is. In particular, an Achlioptas process models a crisis as an exogenous force when in reality problems are usually endogenous. You don’t expect a meteor to hit the Earth, but you do expect humans to have an impact on the environment. Also, not everybody in the network is trying to avoid errors. Some companies thrive in economic downturns by managing your toxic assets, for example. So one could reasonably argue that Achlioptas processes aren’t complex enough to model the realistic types of disasters we face.

Either way, I find it fantastic that something like a random graph (which for decades was securely in pure combinatorics away from applications) is spurring such discussion.

Next time, we’ll take one more dive into the theory of Erdős-Rényi random graphs to prove a very “meta” theorem about sharp thresholds. Then we’ll turn our attention to other models of random graphs, hopefully more realistic ones 🙂

Until then!

# The Two-Dimensional Fourier Transform and Digital Watermarking

We’ve studied the Fourier transform quite a bit on this blog: with four primers and the Fast Fourier Transform algorithm under our belt, it’s about time we opened up our eyes to higher dimensions.

Indeed, in the decades since Cooley & Tukey’s landmark paper, the most interesting applications of the discrete Fourier transform have occurred in dimensions greater than 1. But for all our work we haven’t yet discussed what it means to take an “n-dimensional” Fourier transform. Our past toiling and troubling will pay off, though, because the higher Fourier transform and its 1-dimensional cousin are quite similar. Indeed, the shortest way to describe the $n$-dimensional transform is as the 1-dimensional transform with inner products of vector variables replacing regular products of variables.

In this post we’ll flush out these details. We’ll define the multivariable Fourier transform and it’s discrete partner, implement an algorithm to compute it (FFT-style), and then apply the transform to the problem of digitally watermarking images.

As usual, all the code, images, and examples used in this post are available on this blog’s Github page.

## Sweeping Some Details Under the Rug

We spent our first and second primers on Fourier analysis describing the Fourier series in one variable, and taking a limit of the period to get the Fourier transform in one variable. By all accounts, it was a downright mess of notation and symbol manipulation that culminated in the realization that the Fourier series looks a lot like a Riemann sum. So it was in one dimension, it is in arbitrary dimension, but to save our stamina for the applications we’re going to treat the $n$-dimensional transform differently. We’ll use the 1-dimensional transform as a model, and magically generalize it to operate on a vector-valued variable. Then the reader will take it on faith that we could achieve the same end as a limit of some kind of multidimensional Fourier series (and all that nonsense with Schwarz functions and tempered distributions is left to the analysts), or if not we’ll provide external notes with the full details.

So we start with a real-valued (or complex-valued) function $f : \mathbb{R}^n \to \mathbb{R}$, and we write the variable as $x = (x_1, \dots, x_n)$, so that we can stick to using the notation $f(x)$. Rather than think of the components of $x$ as “time variables” as we did in the one-dimensional case, we’ll usually think of $x$ as representing physical space. And so the periodic behavior of the function $f$ represents periodicity in space. On the other hand our transformed variables will be “frequency” in space, and this will correspond to a vector variable $\xi = (\xi_1, \dots, \xi_n)$. We’ll come back to what the heck “periodicity in space” means momentarily.

Remember that in one dimension the Fourier transform was defined by

$\displaystyle \mathscr{F}f(s) = \int_{-\infty}^\infty e^{-2\pi ist}f(t) dt$.

And it’s inverse transform was

$\displaystyle \mathscr{F}^{-1}g(t) = \int_{-\infty}^\infty e^{2\pi ist}f(s) ds$.

Indeed, with the vector $x$ replacing $t$ and $\xi$ replacing $s$, we have to figure out how to make an analogous definition. The obvious thing to do is to take the place where $st$ is multiplied and replace it with the inner product of $x$ and $\xi$, which for this post I’ll write $x \cdot \xi$ (usually I write $\left \langle x, \xi \right \rangle$). This gives us the $n$-dimensional transform

$\displaystyle \mathscr{F}f(\xi) = \int_{\mathbb{R}^n} e^{-2\pi i x \cdot \xi}f(x) dx$,

and its inverse

$\displaystyle \mathscr{F}^{-1}g(t) = \int_{\mathbb{R}^n} e^{2\pi i x \cdot \xi}f( \xi ) d \xi$

Note that the integral is over all of $\mathbb{R}^n$. To give a clarifying example, if we are in two dimensions we can write everything out in coordinates: $x = (x_1, x_2), \xi = (\xi_1, \xi_2)$, and the formula for the transform becomes

$\displaystyle \mathscr{F}f(\xi_1, \xi_2) = \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} e^{-2 \pi i (x_1 \xi_1 + x_2 \xi_2)} f(\xi_1, \xi_2) dx_1 dx_2$.

Now that’s a nasty integral if I’ve ever seen one. But for our purposes in this post, this will be as nasty as it gets, for we’re primarily concerned with image analysis. So representing things as vectors of arbitrary dimension is more compact, and we don’t lose anything for it.

## Periodicity in Space? It’s All Mostly the Same

Because arithmetic with vectors and arithmetic with numbers is so similar, it turns out that most of the properties of the 1-dimensional Fourier transform hold in arbitrary dimension. For example, the duality of the Fourier transform and its inverse holds, because for vectors $e^{-2 \pi i x \cdot (-\xi)} = e^{2 \pi i x \cdot \xi}$. So just like in on dimension, we have

$\mathscr{F}f(-\xi) = \mathscr{F}^{-1}f(\xi)$

And again we have correspondences between algebraic operations: convolution in the spatial domain corresponds to convolution in the frequency domain, the spectrum is symmetric about the origin, etc.

At a more geometric level, though, the Fourier transform does the same sort of thing as it did in the one-dimensional case. Again the complex exponentials form the building blocks of any function we want, and performing a Fourier transform on an $n$-dimensional function decomposes that function into its frequency components. So a function that is perfectly periodic corresponds to a Fourier spectrum that’s perfectly concentrated at a point.

But what the hell, the reader might ask, is ‘periodicity in space’? Since we’re talking about images anyway, the variables we care about (the coordinates of a pixel) are spatial variables. You could, if you were so inclined, have a function of multiple time variables, and to mathematicians a physical interpretation of dimension is just that, an interpretation. But as confusing as it might sound, it’s actually not so hard to understand the Fourier transform when it’s specialized to image analysis. The idea is that complex exponentials $e^{\pm 2 \pi i s \cdot \xi}$ oscillate in the $x$ variable for a fixed $\xi$ (and since $\mathscr{F}$ has $\xi$ as its input, we do want to fix $\xi$). The brief mathematical analysis goes like this: if we fix $\xi$ then the complex exponential is periodic with magnitudinal peaks along parallel lines spaced out at a distance of $1/ \left \| \xi \right \|$ apart. In particular any image is a sum of a bunch of these “complex exponential with a fixed $\xi$” images that look like stripes with varying widths and orientations (what you see here is just the real part of a particular complex exponential).

Any image can be made from a sum of a whole lot of images like the ones on top. They correspond to single points in the Fourier spectrum (and their symmetries), as on bottom.

What you see on top is an image, and on bottom its Fourier spectrum. That is, each brightly colored pixel corresponds to a point $[x_1, x_2]$ with a large magnitude for that frequency component $|\mathscr{F}f[x_1, x_2]|$.

It might be a bit surprising that every image can be constructed as a sum of stripey things, but so was it that any sound can be constructed as a sum of sines and cosines. It’s really just a statement about a basis of some vector space of functions. The long version of this story is laid out beautifully in pages 4 – 7 of these notes. The whole set of notes is wonderful, but this section is mathematically tidy and needs no background; the remainder of the notes outline the details about multidimensional Fourier series mentioned earlier, as well as a lot of other things. In higher dimensions the “parallel lines” idea is much the same, but with lines replaced by hyperplanes normal to the given vector.

## Discretizing the Transform

Recall that for a continuous function $f$ of one variable, we spent a bit of time figuring out how to find a good discrete approximation of $f$, how to find a good discrete approximation of the Fourier transform $\mathscr{F}f$, and how to find a quick way to transition between the two. In brief: $f$ was approximated by a vector of samples $(f[0], f[1], \dots, f[N])$, reconstructed the original function (which was only correct at the sampled points) and computed the Fourier transform of that, calling it the discrete Fourier transform, or DFT. We got to this definition, using square brackets to denote list indexing (or vector indexing, whatever):

Definition: Let $f = (f[1], \dots f[N])$ be a vector in $\mathbb{R}^N$. Then the discrete Fourier transform of $f$ is defined by the vector $(\mathscr{F}f[1], \dots, \mathscr{F}f[N])$, where

$\displaystyle \mathscr{F}f[j] = \sum_{k=0}^{N-1} f[k]e^{-2 \pi i jk/N}$

Just as with the one-dimensional case, we can do the same analysis and arrive at a discrete approximation of an $n$-dimensional function. Instead of a vector it would be an $N \times N \times \dots \times N$ matrix, where there are $n$ terms in the matrix, one for each variable. In two dimensions, this means the discrete approximation of a function is a matrix of samples taken at evenly-spaced intervals in both directions.

Sticking with two dimensions, the Fourier transform is then a linear operator taking matrices to matrices (which is called a tensor if you want to scare people). It has its own representation like the one above, where each term is a double sum. In terms of image analysis, we can imagine that each term in the sum requires us to look at every pixel of the original image

Definition: Let $f = (f[s,t])$ be a vector in $\mathbb{R}^N \times \mathbb{R}^M$, where $s$ ranges from $0, \dots, N-1$ and $t$ from $0, \dots, M-1$. Then the discrete Fourier transform of $f$ is defined by the vector $(\mathscr{F}f[s,t])$, where each entry is given by

$\displaystyle \mathscr{F}f[x_1, x_2] = \sum_{s=0}^{N-1} \sum_{t=0}^{M-1} f[s, t] e^{-2 \pi i (s x_1 / N + t x_2 / M)}$

In the one-dimensional case the inverse transform had a sign change in the exponent and an extra $1/N$ normalization factor. Similarly, in two dimensions the inverse transform has a normalization factor of $1/NM$ (1 over the total number of samples). Again we use a capital $F$ to denote the transformed version of $f$. The higher dimensional transforms are analogous: you get $n$ sums, one for each component, and the normalization factor is the inverse of the total number of samples.

$\displaystyle \mathscr{F}^{-1}F[x_1, x_2] = \frac{1}{NM} \sum_{s=0}^{N-1} \sum_{t=0}^{M-1} f[s,t] e^{2 \pi i (sx_1 / N + tx_2 / M)}$

Unfortunately, the world of the DFT disagrees a lot on the choice of normalization factor. It turns out that all that really matters is that the exponent is negated in the inverse, and that the product of the constant terms on both the transform and its inverse is $1/NM$. So some people will normalize both the Fourier transform and its inverse by $1/ \sqrt{NM}$. The reason for this is that it makes the transform and its inverse more similar-looking (it’s just that, cosmetic). The choice of normalization isn’t particularly important for us, but beware: non-canonical choices are out there, and they do affect formulas by adding multiplicative constants.

## The Fast Fourier Transform, Revisited

Now one might expect that there is another clever algorithm to drastically reduce the runtime of the 2-dimensional DFT, akin to the fast Fourier transform algorithm (FFT). But actually there is almost no additional insight required to understand the “fast” higher dimensional Fourier transform algorithm, because all the work was done for us in the one dimensional case.

All that we do is realize that each of the inner summations is a 1-dimensional DFT. That is, if we write the inner-most sum as a function of two parameters

$\displaystyle g(s, x_2) = \sum_{t=0}^{M-1} f(s,t) e^{-2 \pi i (tx_2 / M)}$

then the 2-dimensional FFT is simply

$\displaystyle \mathscr{F}f[x_1, x_2] = \sum_{s=0}^{N-1} g(s, x_2) e^{-2 \pi i (sx_1/N)}$

But now notice, that we can forget that $g(s,x_2)$ was ever a separate, two-dimensional function. Indeed, since it only depends on the $x_2$ parameter from out of the sum this is precisely the formula for a 1-dimensional DFT! And so if we want to compute the 2-dimensional DFT using the 1-dimensional FFT algorithm, we can compute the matrix of 1-dimensional DFT entries for all choices of $s, x_2$ by fixing each value of $s$ in turn and running FFT on the resulting “column” of values. If you followed the program from our last FFT post, then the only difficulty is in understanding how the data is shuffled around and which variables are fixed during the computation of the sub-DFT’s.

To remedy the confusion, we give an example. Say we have the following 3×3 matrix whose DFT we want to compute. Remember, these values are the sampled values of a 2-variable function.

$\displaystyle \begin{pmatrix} f[0,0] & f[0,1] & f[0,2] \\ f[1,0] & f[1,1] & f[1,2] \\ f[2,0] & f[2,1] & f[2,2] \end{pmatrix}$

The first step in the algorithm is to fix a choice of row, $s$, and compute the DFT of the resulting row. So let’s fix $s = 0$, and then we have the resulting row

$\displaystyle f_0 = (f[0,0], f[0,1], f[0,2])$

It’s DFT is computed (intentionally using the same notation as the inner summation above), as

$\displaystyle g[0,x_2] = (\mathscr{F}f_0)[x_2] = \sum_{t=0}^{M-1} f_0[t] e^{- 2 \pi i (t x_2 / M)}$

Note that $f_0[t] = f[s,t]$ for our fixed choice of $s=0$. And so if we do this for all $N$ rows (all 3 rows, in this example), we’ll have performed $N$ FFT’s of size $M$ to get a matrix of values

$\displaystyle \begin{pmatrix} g[0,0] & g[0,1] & g[0,2] \\ g[1,0] & g[1,1] & g[1,2] \\ g[2,0] & g[2,1] & g[2,2] \end{pmatrix}$

Now we want to compute the rest of the 2-dimensional DFT to the end, and it’s easy: now each column consists of the terms in the outermost sum above (since $s$ is the iterating variable). So if we fix a value of $x_2$, say $x_2 = 1$, we get the resulting column

$\displaystyle g_1 = (g[0, 1], g[1,1], g[2,1])$

and computing a DFT on this row gives

$\displaystyle \mathscr{F}f[x_1, 1] = \sum_{s=0}^{N-1} g_1[s] e^{-2 \pi i sx_1 / N}$.

Expanding the definition of $g$ as a DFT gets us back to the original formula for the 2-dimensional DFT, so we know we did it right. In the end we get a matrix of the computed DFT values for all $x_1, x_2$.

Let’s analyze the runtime of this algorithm: in the first round of DFT’s we computed $N$ DFT’s of size $M$, requiring a total of $O(N M \log M)$, since we know FFT takes time $O(M \log M)$ for a list of length $M$. In the second round we did it the other way around, computing $M$ DFT’s of size $N$ each, giving a total of

$O(NM \log M + NM \log N) = O(NM (\log N + \log M)) = O(NM \log (NM))$

In other words, if the size of the image is $n = NM$, then we are achieving an $O(n \log n)$-time algorithm, which was precisely the speedup that the FFT algorithm gave us for one-dimension. We also know a lower bound on this problem: we can’t do better than $NM$ since we have to look at every pixel at least once. So we know that we’re only a logarithmic factor away from a trivial lower bound. And indeed, all other known DFT algorithms have the same runtime. Without any assumptions on the input data (or any parallelization), nobody knows of a faster algorithm.

Now let’s turn to the code. If we use our FFT algorithm from last time, the pure Python one (read: very slow), then we can implement the 2D Fourier transform in just two lines of Python code. Full disclosure: we left out some numpy stuff in this code for readability. You can view the entire source file on this blog’s Github page.

def fft2d(matrix):
fftRows = [fft(row) for row in matrix]
return transpose([fft(row) for row in transpose(fftRows)])


And we can test it on a simple matrix with one nonzero value in it:

A = [[0,0,0,0], [0,1,0,0], [0,0,0,0], [0,0,0,0]]
for row in fft2d(A):
print(', '.join(['%.3f + %.3fi' % (x.real, x.imag) for x in row]))


The output is (reformatted in LaTeX, obviously):

$\displaystyle \begin{pmatrix} 1 & -i & -1 & i \\ -i & -1 & i & 1 \\ -1 & i & 1 & -i \\ i & 1 & -i & -1 \end{pmatrix}$

The reader can verify by hand that this is correct (there’s only one nonzero term in the double sum, so it just boils down to figuring out the complex exponential $e^{2 \pi i (x_1 + x_2 / 4)}$). We leave it as an additional exercise to the reader to implement the inverse transform, as well as to generalize this algorithm to higher dimensional DFTs.

## Some Experiments and Animations

As we did with the 1-dimensional FFT, we’re now going to switch to using an industry-strength FFT algorithm for the applications. We’ll be using the numpy library and its “fft2” function, along with scipy’s ndimage module for image manipulation. Getting all of this set up was a nightmare (thank goodness for people who guide users like me through this stuff, but even then the headache seemed unending!). As usual, all of the code and images used in the making of this post is available on this blog’s Github page.

And so we can start playing with a sample image, a still from one of my favorite television shows:

The Fourier transform of this image (after we convert it to grayscale) can be computed in python:

def fourierSpectrumExample(filename):
unshiftedfft = numpy.fft.fft2(A)
spectrum = numpy.log10(numpy.absolute(unshiftedfft) + numpy.ones(A.shape))
misc.imsave("%s-spectrum-unshifted.png" % (filename.split('.')[0]), spectrum)


With the result:

The Fourier spectrum of Sherlock and Watson (and London).

A few notes: we use the ndimage library to load the image and flatten the colors to grayscale. Then, after we compute the spectrum, we shift and take a logarithm. This is because the raw spectrum values are too massive; plotting them without modification makes the image contrast too high.

Something is odd, though, because the brightest regions are on the edges of the image, where we might expect the highest-frequency elements to be. Actually, it turns out that a raw DFT (as computed by numpy, anyhow) is “shifted.” That is, the indices are much like they were in our original FFT post, so that the “center” of the spectrum (the lowest frequency component) is actually in the corner of the image array.

The numpy folks have a special function designed to alleviate this called fftshift. Applying it before we plot the image gives the following spectrum:

Now that’s more like it. For more details on what’s going on with shifting and how to use the shifting functions, see this matlab thread. (As a side note, the “smudges” in this image are interesting. We wonder what property of the original image contributes to the smudges)

Shifted or unshifted, this image represents the frequency spectrum of the image. In other words, we could take the inverse DFT of each pixel (and its symmetric partner) of this image separately, add them all together, and get back to our original image! We did just that using a different image (one of size 266 x 189, requiring a mere 25137 frequency components), to produce this video of the process:

Many thanks to James Hance for his relentlessly cheerful art (I have a reddish version of this particular masterpiece on my bedroom wall).

For the interested reader, I followed this youtube video’s recommended workflow to make the time-lapsed movie, along with some additional steps to make the videos play side by side. It took quite a while to generate and process the images, and the frames take up a lot of space. So instead of storing all the frames, the interested reader may find the script used to generate the frames on this blog’s Github page (along with all of the rest of the code used in this blog post).

## Digital Watermarking

Now we turn to the main application of Fourier transforms to this post, the task of adding an invisible digital watermark to an image. Just in case the reader lives in a cave, a watermark is a security device used to protect the ownership or authenticity of a particular good. Usually they’re used on money to prevent counterfeits, but they’re often applied to high-resolution images on the web to protect copyrights. But perhaps more than just protect existing copyrights, watermarks as they’re used today are ugly, and mostly prevent people from taking the image (paid for or not) in the first place. Here’s an example from a big proponent of ugly watermarks, Shutterstock.com.

Now if you were the business of copyright litigation, you’d make a lot of money by suing people who took your clients’ images without permission. So rather than prevent people from stealing in the first place, you could put in an invisible watermark into all of your images and then crawl the web looking for stolen images with your watermark. It would be easy enough to automate (Google already did most of the work for you, if you just want to use Google’s search by image feature).

Now I’m more on the side of Fair Use For All, so I wouldn’t hope for a company to actually implement this and make using the internet that much scarier of a place. But the idea makes for an interesting thought experiment and blog post. The idea is simply to modify the spectrum of an image by adding in small, artificial frequency components. That is, the watermarked image will look identical to the original image to a human, but the Fourier spectrum will contain suspicious entries that we can extract if we know where to look.

Implementing the watermarking feature is quite easy, so let’s do that first. Let’s work again with James Hance’s fine artwork.

Let’s call our image’s pixel matrix $A$ and say we’re working with grayscale images for simplicity (for color, we just do the same thing to all three color channels). Then we can define a watermark matrix $W$ by the following procedure:

1. Pick a radius $r$, a length $L$, a watermark strength $\alpha$, and a secret key $k$.
2. Using $k$ as a seed to a random number generator, define a random binary vector $v$ of length $L$.
3. Pick a subset $S$ of the circle of coordinates centered at the image’s center of radius $r$, chosen or rejected based on the entries of $v$.
4. Let $W$ be the matrix of all zeros (of the same dimension as $A$ with 1’s in the entries of $S$.
5. Compute the watermarked image as $\mathscr{F}^{-1}(\mathscr{F}(A) + \alpha W)$. That is, compute the DFT of $A$, add $\alpha W$ to it, and then compute the inverse Fourier transform of the result.

The code for this is simple enough. To create a random vector:

import random
def randomVector(seed, length):
random.seed(secretKey)
return [random.choice([0,1]) for _ in range(length)]


To make the watermark (and flush out all of the technical details of how it’s done:

def makeWatermark(imageShape, radius, secretKey, vectorLength=50):
watermark = numpy.zeros(imageShape)
center = (int(imageShape[0] / 2) + 1, int(imageShape[1] / 2) + 1)

vector = randomVector(secretKey, vectorLength)

x = lambda t: center[0] + int(radius * math.cos(t * 2 * math.pi / vectorLength))
y = lambda t: center[1] + int(radius * math.sin(t * 2 * math.pi / vectorLength))
indices = [(x(t), y(t)) for t in range(vectorLength)]

for i,location in enumerate(indices):
watermark[location] = vector[i]

return watermark


We use the usual parameterization of the circle as $t \mapsto (\cos(2 \pi t / n), \sin(2 \pi t / n)$ scaled to the appropriate radius. Here’s what the watermark looks like as a spectrum:

It’s hard to see the individual pixels, so click it to enlarge.

And then applying a given watermark to an image is super simple.

def applyWatermark(imageMatrix, watermarkMatrix, alpha):
shiftedDFT = fftshift(fft2(imageMatrix))
watermarkedDFT = shiftedDFT + alpha * watermarkMatrix
watermarkedImage = ifft2(ifftshift(watermarkedDFT))

return watermarkedImage


And that’s all there is to it! One might wonder how the choice of $\alpha$ affects the intensity of the watermark, and indeed here we show a few example values of this method applied to Hance’s piece:

Click to enlarge. The effects are most visible in the rightmost image where alpha = 1,000,000

It appears that it’s not until $\alpha$ becomes egregiously large (over 10,000) that we visibly notice the effects. This could be in part due to the fact that this is an image of a canvas (which has lots of small textures in the background). But it’s good to keep in mind the range of acceptable values when designing a decoding mechanism.

Indeed, a decoding mechanism is conceptually much messier; it’s the art to the encoding mechanism’s science. This paper details one possible way to do it, which is essentially to scale everything up or down to 512×512 pixels and try circles of every possible radius until you find one (or don’t) which is statistically similar to the your random vector. And note that since we have the secret key we can generate the exact same random vector. So what the author of that paper suggests is to extract each circle of pixels from the Fourier spectrum, treating it as a single vector with first entry at angle 0. Then you do some statistical magic (compute cross-correlation or some other similarity measure) between the extracted pixels and your secret-key-generated random vector. If they’re sufficiently similar, then you’ve found your watermark, and otherwise there’s no watermark present.

The code required to do this only requires a few extra lines that aren’t present in the code we’re already presented in this article (numpy does cross-correlation for you), so we leave it as an exercise to the reader: write a program that determines if an image contains our watermark, and test the algorithm on various $\alpha$ and with modifications of the image like rotation, scaling, cropping, and jpeg compression. Part of the benefit of Fourier-based techniques is the resilience of the spectrum to mild applications of these transformations.

Next time we’ll use the Fourier transform to do other cool things to images, like designing filters and combining images in interesting ways.

Until then!

# Optimism in the Face of Uncertainty: the UCB1 Algorithm

The software world is always atwitter with predictions on the next big piece of technology. And a lot of chatter focuses on what venture capitalists express interest in. As an investor, how do you pick a good company to invest in? Do you notice quirky names like “Kaggle” and “Meebo,” require deep technical abilities, or value a charismatic sales pitch?

This author personally believes we’re not thinking as big as we should be when it comes to innovation in software engineering and computer science, and that as a society we should value big pushes forward much more than we do. But making safe investments is almost always at odds with innovation. And so every venture capitalist faces the following question. When do you focus investment in those companies that have proven to succeed, and when do you explore new options for growth? A successful venture capitalist must strike a fine balance between this kind of exploration and exploitation. Explore too much and you won’t make enough profit to sustain yourself. Narrow your view too much and you will miss out on opportunities whose return surpasses any of your current prospects.

In life and in business there is no correct answer on what to do, partly because we just don’t have a good understanding of how the world works (or markets, or people, or the weather). In mathematics, however, we can meticulously craft settings that have solid answers. In this post we’ll describe one such scenario, the so-called multi-armed bandit problem, and a simple algorithm called UCB1 which performs close to optimally. Then, in a future post, we’ll analyze the algorithm on some real world data.

As usual, all of the code used in the making of this post are available for download on this blog’s Github page.

## Multi-Armed Bandits

The multi-armed bandit scenario is simple to describe, and it boils the exploration-exploitation tradeoff down to its purest form.

Suppose you have a set of $K$ actions labeled by the integers $\left \{ 1, 2, \dots, K \right \}$. We call these actions in the abstract, but in our minds they’re slot machines. We can then play a game where, in each round, we choose an action (a slot machine to play), and we observe the resulting payout. Over many rounds, we might explore the machines by trying some at random. Assuming the machines are not identical, we naturally play machines that seem to pay off well more frequently to try to maximize our total winnings.

This is the most general description of the game we could possibly give, and every bandit learning problem has these two components: actions and rewards. But in order to get to a concrete problem that we can reason about, we need to specify more details. Bandit learning is a large tree of variations and this is the point at which the field ramifies. We presently care about two of the main branches.

How are the rewards produced? There are many ways that the rewards could work. One nice option is to have the rewards for action $i$ be drawn from a fixed distribution $D_i$ (a different reward distribution for each action), and have the draws be independent across rounds and across actions. This is called the stochastic setting and it’s what we’ll use in this post. Just to pique the reader’s interest, here’s the alternative: instead of having the rewards be chosen randomly, have them be adversarial. That is, imagine a casino owner knows your algorithm and your internal beliefs about which machines are best at any given time. He then fixes the payoffs of the slot machines in advance of each round to screw you up! This sounds dismal, because the casino owner could just make all the machines pay nothing every round. But actually we can design good algorithms for this case, but “good” will mean something different than absolute winnings. And so we must ask:

How do we measure success? In both the stochastic and the adversarial setting, we’re going to have a hard time coming up with any theorems about the performance of an algorithm if we care about how much absolute reward is produced. There’s nothing to stop the distributions from having terrible expected payouts, and nothing to stop the casino owner from intentionally giving us no payout. Indeed, the problem lies in our measurement of success. A better measurement, which we can apply to both the stochastic and adversarial settings, is the notion of regret. We’ll give the definition for the stochastic case, and investigate the adversarial case in a future post.

Definition: Given a player algorithm $A$ and a set of actions $\left \{1, 2, \dots, K \right \}$, the cumulative regret of $A$ in rounds $1, \dots, T$ is the difference between the expected reward of the best action (the action with the highest expected payout) and the expected reward of $A$ for the first $T$ rounds.

We’ll add some more notation shortly to rephrase this definition in symbols, but the idea is clear: we’re competing against the best action. Had we known it ahead of time, we would have just played it every single round. Our notion of success is not in how well we do absolutely, but in how well we do relative to what is feasible.

## Notation

Let’s go ahead and draw up some notation. As before the actions are labeled by integers $\left \{ 1, \dots, K \right \}$. The reward of action $i$ is a $[0,1]$-valued random variable $X_i$ distributed according to an unknown distribution and possessing an unknown expected value $\mu_i$. The game progresses in rounds $t = 1, 2, \dots$ so that in each round we have different random variables $X_{i,t}$ for the reward of action $i$ in round $t$ (in particular, $X_{i,t}$ and $X_{i,s}$ are identically distributed). The $X_{i,t}$ are independent as both $t$ and $i$ vary, although when $i$ varies the distribution changes.

So if we were to play action 2 over and over for $T$ rounds, then the total payoff would be the random variable $G_2(T) = \sum_{t=1}^T X_{2,t}$. But by independence across rounds and the linearity of expectation, the expected payoff is just $\mu_2 T$. So we can describe the best action as the action with the highest expected payoff. Define

$\displaystyle \mu^* = \max_{1 \leq i \leq K} \mu_i$

We call the action which achieves the maximum $i^*$.

A policy is a randomized algorithm $A$ which picks an action in each round based on the history of chosen actions and observed rewards so far. Define $I_t$ to be the action played by $A$ in round $t$ and $P_i(n)$ to be the number of times we’ve played action $i$ in rounds $1 \leq t \leq n$. These are both random variables. Then the cumulative payoff for the algorithm $A$ over the first $T$ rounds, denoted $G_A(T)$, is just

$\displaystyle G_A(T) = \sum_{t=1}^T X_{I_t, t}$

and its expected value is simply

$\displaystyle \mathbb{E}(G_A(T)) = \mu_1 \mathbb{E}(P_1(T)) + \dots + \mu_K \mathbb{E}(P_K(T))$.

Here the expectation is taken over all random choices made by the policy and over the distributions of rewards, and indeed both of these can affect how many times a machine is played.

Now the cumulative regret of a policy $A$ after the first $T$ steps, denoted $R_A(T)$ can be written as

$\displaystyle R_A(T) = G_{i^*}(T) - G_A(T)$

And the goal of the policy designer for this bandit problem is to minimize the expected cumulative regret, which by linearity of expectation is

$\mathbb{E}(R_A(T)) = \mu^*T - \mathbb{E}(G_A(T))$.

Before we continue, we should note that there are theorems concerning lower bounds for expected cumulative regret. Specifically, for this problem it is known that no algorithm can guarantee an expected cumulative regret better than $\Omega(\sqrt{KT})$. It is also known that there are algorithms that guarantee no worse than $O(\sqrt{KT})$ expected regret. The algorithm we’ll see in the next section, however, only guarantees $O(\sqrt{KT \log T})$. We present it on this blog because of its simplicity and ubiquity in the field.

## The UCB1 Algorithm

The policy we examine is called UCB1, and it can be summed up by the principle of optimism in the face of uncertainty. That is, despite our lack of knowledge in what actions are best we will construct an optimistic guess as to how good the expected payoff of each action is, and pick the action with the highest guess. If our guess is wrong, then our optimistic guess will quickly decrease and we’ll be compelled to switch to a different action. But if we pick well, we’ll be able to exploit that action and incur little regret. In this way we balance exploration and exploitation.

The formalism is a bit more detailed than this, because we’ll need to ensure that we don’t rule out good actions that fare poorly early on. Our “optimism” comes in the form of an upper confidence bound (hence the acronym UCB). Specifically, we want to know with high probability that the true expected payoff of an action $\mu_i$ is less than our prescribed upper bound. One general (distribution independent) way to do that is to use the Chernoff-Hoeffding inequality.

As a reminder, suppose $Y_1, \dots, Y_n$ are independent random variables whose values lie in $[0,1]$ and whose expected values are $\mu_i$. Call $Y = \frac{1}{n}\sum_{i}Y_i$ and $\mu = \mathbb{E}(Y) = \frac{1}{n} \sum_{i} \mu_i$. Then the Chernoff-Hoeffding inequality gives an exponential upper bound on the probability that the value of $Y$ deviates from its mean. Specifically,

$\displaystyle \textup{P}(Y + a < \mu) \leq e^{-2na^2}$

For us, the $Y_i$ will be the payoff variables for a single action $j$ in the rounds for which we choose action $j$. Then the variable $Y$ is just the empirical average payoff for action $j$ over all the times we’ve tried it. Moreover, $a$ is our one-sided upper bound (and as a lower bound, sometimes). We can then solve this equation for $a$ to find an upper bound big enough to be confident that we’re within $a$ of the true mean.

Indeed, if we call $n_j$ the number of times we played action $j$ thus far, then $n = n_j$ in the equation above, and using $a = a(j,T) = \sqrt{2 \log(T) / n_j}$ we get that $\textup{P}(Y > \mu + a) \leq T^{-4}$, which converges to zero very quickly as the number of rounds played grows. We’ll see this pop up again in the algorithm’s analysis below. But before that note two things. First, assuming we don’t play an action $j$, its upper bound $a$ grows in the number of rounds. This means that we never permanently rule out an action no matter how poorly it performs. If we get extremely unlucky with the optimal action, we will eventually be convinced to try it again. Second, the probability that our upper bound is wrong decreases in the number of rounds independently of how many times we’ve played the action. That is because our upper bound $a(j, T)$ is getting bigger for actions we haven’t played; any round in which we play an action $j$, it must be that $a(j, T+1) = a(j,T)$, although the empirical mean will likely change.

With these two facts in mind, we can formally state the algorithm and intuitively understand why it should work.

UCB1:
Play each of the $K$ actions once, giving initial values for empirical mean payoffs $\overline{x}_i$ of each action $i$.
For each round $t = K, K+1, \dots$:

Let $n_j$ represent the number of times action $j$ was played so far.
Play the action $j$ maximizing $\overline{x}_j + \sqrt{2 \log t / n_j}$.
Observe the reward $X_{j,t}$ and update the empirical mean for the chosen action.

And that’s it. Note that we’re being super stateful here: the empirical means $x_j$ change over time, and we’ll leave this update implicit throughout the rest of our discussion (sorry, functional programmers, but the notation is horrendous otherwise).

Before we implement and test this algorithm, let’s go ahead and prove that it achieves nearly optimal regret. The reader uninterested in mathematical details should skip the proof, but the discussion of the theorem itself is important. If one wants to use this algorithm in real life, one needs to understand the guarantees it provides in order to adequately quantify the risk involved in using it.

Theorem: Suppose that UCB1 is run on the bandit game with $K$ actions, each of whose reward distribution $X_{i,t}$ has values in [0,1]. Then its expected cumulative regret after $T$ rounds is at most $O(\sqrt{KT \log T})$.

Actually, we’ll prove a more specific theorem. Let $\Delta_i$ be the difference $\mu^* - \mu_i$, where $\mu^*$ is the expected payoff of the best action, and let $\Delta$ be the minimal nonzero $\Delta_i$. That is, $\Delta_i$ represents how suboptimal an action is and $\Delta$ is the suboptimality of the second best action. These constants are called problem-dependent constants. The theorem we’ll actually prove is:

Theorem: Suppose UCB1 is run as above. Then its expected cumulative regret $\mathbb{E}(R_{\textup{UCB1}}(T))$ is at most

$\displaystyle 8 \sum_{i : \mu_i < \mu^*} \frac{\log T}{\Delta_i} + \left ( 1 + \frac{\pi^2}{3} \right ) \left ( \sum_{j=1}^K \Delta_j \right )$

Okay, this looks like one nasty puppy, but it’s actually not that bad. The first term of the sum signifies that we expect to play any suboptimal machine about a logarithmic number of times, roughly scaled by how hard it is to distinguish from the optimal machine. That is, if $\Delta_i$ is small we will require more tries to know that action $i$ is suboptimal, and hence we will incur more regret. The second term represents a small constant number (the $1 + \pi^2 / 3$ part) that caps the number of times we’ll play suboptimal machines in excess of the first term due to unlikely events occurring. So the first term is like our expected losses, and the second is our risk.

But note that this is a worst-case bound on the regret. We’re not saying we will achieve this much regret, or anywhere near it, but that UCB1 simply cannot do worse than this. Our hope is that in practice UCB1 performs much better.

Before we prove the theorem, let’s see how derive the $O(\sqrt{KT \log T})$ bound mentioned above. This will require familiarity with multivariable calculus, but such things must be endured like ripping off a band-aid. First consider the regret as a function $R(\Delta_1, \dots, \Delta_K)$ (excluding of course $\Delta^*$), and let’s look at the worst case bound by maximizing it. In particular, we’re just finding the problem with the parameters which screw our bound as badly as possible, The gradient of the regret function is given by

$\displaystyle \frac{\partial R}{\partial \Delta_i} = - \frac{8 \log T}{\Delta_i^2} + 1 + \frac{\pi^2}{3}$

and it’s zero if and only if for each $i$, $\Delta_i = \sqrt{\frac{8 \log T}{1 + \pi^2/3}} = O(\sqrt{\log T})$. However this is a minimum of the regret bound (the Hessian is diagonal and all its eigenvalues are positive). Plugging in the $\Delta_i = O(\sqrt{\log T})$ (which are all the same) gives a total bound of $O(K \sqrt{\log T})$. If we look at the only possible endpoint (the $\Delta_i = 1$), then we get a local maximum of $O(K \sqrt{\log T})$. But this isn’t the $O(\sqrt{KT \log T})$ we promised, what gives? Well, this upper bound grows arbitrarily large as the $\Delta_i$ go to zero. But at the same time, if all the $\Delta_i$ are small, then we shouldn’t be incurring much regret because we’ll be picking actions that are close to optimal!

Indeed, if we assume for simplicity that all the $\Delta_i = \Delta$ are the same, then another trivial regret bound is $\Delta T$ (why?). The true regret is hence the minimum of this regret bound and the UCB1 regret bound: as the UCB1 bound degrades we will eventually switch to the simpler bound. That will be a non-differentiable switch (and hence a critical point) and it occurs at $\Delta = O(\sqrt{(K \log T) / T})$. Hence the regret bound at the switch is $\Delta T = O(\sqrt{KT \log T})$, as desired.

## Proving the Worst-Case Regret Bound

Proof. The proof works by finding a bound on $P_i(T)$, the expected number of times UCB chooses an action up to round $T$. Using the $\Delta$ notation, the regret is then just $\sum_i \Delta_i \mathbb{E}(P_i(T))$, and bounding the $P_i$‘s will bound the regret.

Recall the notation for our upper bound $a(j, T) = \sqrt{2 \log T / P_j(T)}$ and let’s loosen it a bit to $a(y, T) = \sqrt{2 \log T / y}$ so that we’re allowed to “pretend” a action has been played $y$ times. Recall further that the random variable $I_t$ has as its value the index of the machine chosen. We denote by $\chi(E)$ the indicator random variable for the event $E$. And remember that we use an asterisk to denote a quantity associated with the optimal action (e.g., $\overline{x}^*$ is the empirical mean of the optimal action).

Indeed for any action $i$, the only way we know how to write down $P_i(T)$ is as

$\displaystyle P_i(T) = 1 + \sum_{t=K}^T \chi(I_t = i)$

The 1 is from the initialization where we play each action once, and the sum is the trivial thing where just count the number of rounds in which we pick action $i$. Now we’re just going to pull some number $m-1$ of plays out of that summation, keep it variable, and try to optimize over it. Since we might play the action fewer than $m$ times overall, this requires an inequality.

$P_i(T) \leq m + \sum_{t=K}^T \chi(I_t = i \textup{ and } P_i(t-1) \geq m)$

These indicator functions should be read as sentences: we’re just saying that we’re picking action $i$ in round $t$ and we’ve already played $i$ at least $m$ times. Now we’re going to focus on the inside of the summation, and come up with an event that happens at least as frequently as this one to get an upper bound. Specifically, saying that we’ve picked action $i$ in round $t$ means that the upper bound for action $i$ exceeds the upper bound for every other action. In particular, this means its upper bound exceeds the upper bound of the best action (and $i$ might coincide with the best action, but that’s fine). In notation this event is

$\displaystyle \overline{x}_i + a(P_i(t), t-1) \geq \overline{x}^* + a(P^*(T), t-1)$

Denote the upper bound $\overline{x}_i + a(i,t)$ for action $i$ in round $t$ by $U_i(t)$. Since this event must occur every time we pick action $i$ (though not necessarily vice versa), we have

$\displaystyle P_i(T) \leq m + \sum_{t=K}^T \chi(U_i(t-1) \geq U^*(t-1) \textup{ and } P_i(t-1) \geq m)$

We’ll do this process again but with a slightly more complicated event. If the upper bound of action $i$ exceeds that of the optimal machine, it is also the case that the maximum upper bound for action $i$ we’ve seen after the first $m$ trials exceeds the minimum upper bound we’ve seen on the optimal machine (ever). But on round $t$ we don’t know how many times we’ve played the optimal machine, nor do we even know how many times we’ve played machine $i$ (except that it’s more than $m$). So we try all possibilities and look at minima and maxima. This is a pretty crude approximation, but it will allow us to write things in a nicer form.

Denote by $\overline{x}_{i,s}$ the random variable for the empirical mean after playing action $i$ a total of $s$ times, and $\overline{x}^*_s$ the corresponding quantity for the optimal machine. Realizing everything in notation, the above argument proves that

$\displaystyle P_i(T) \leq m + \sum_{t=K}^T \chi \left ( \max_{m \leq s < t} \overline{x}_{i,s} + a(s, t-1) \geq \min_{0 < s' < t} \overline{x}^*_{s'} + a(s', t-1) \right )$

Indeed, at each $t$ for which the max is greater than the min, there will be at least one pair $s,s'$ for which the values of the quantities inside the max/min will satisfy the inequality. And so, even worse, we can just count the number of pairs $s, s'$ for which it happens. That is, we can expand the event above into the double sum which is at least as large:

$\displaystyle P_i(T) \leq m + \sum_{t=K}^T \sum_{s = m}^{t-1} \sum_{s' = 1}^{t-1} \chi \left ( \overline{x}_{i,s} + a(s, t-1) \geq \overline{x}^*_{s'} + a(s', t-1) \right )$

We can make one other odd inequality by increasing the sum to go from $t=1$ to $\infty$. This will become clear later, but it means we can replace $t-1$ with $t$ and thus have

$\displaystyle P_i(T) \leq m + \sum_{t=1}^\infty \sum_{s = m}^{t-1} \sum_{s' = 1}^{t-1} \chi \left ( \overline{x}_{i,s} + a(s, t) \geq \overline{x}^*_{s'} + a(s', t) \right )$

Now that we’ve slogged through this mess of inequalities, we can actually get to the heart of the argument. Suppose that this event actually happens, that $\overline{x}_{i,s} + a(s, t) \geq \overline{x}^*_{s'} + a(s', t)$. Then what can we say? Well, consider the following three events:

(1) $\displaystyle \overline{x}^*_{s'} \leq \mu^* - a(s', t)$
(2) $\displaystyle \overline{x}_{i,s} \geq \mu_i + a(s, t)$
(3) $\displaystyle \mu^* < \mu_i + 2a(s, t)$

In words, (1) is the event that the empirical mean of the optimal action is less than the lower confidence bound. By our Chernoff bound argument earlier, this happens with probability $t^{-4}$. Likewise, (2) is the event that the empirical mean payoff of action $i$ is larger than the upper confidence bound, which also occurs with probability $t^{-4}$. We will see momentarily that (3) is impossible for a well-chosen $m$ (which is why we left it variable), but in any case the claim is that one of these three events must occur. For if they are all false, we have

$\displaystyle \begin{matrix} \overline{x}_{i,s} + a(s, t) \geq \overline{x}^*_{s'} + a(s', t) & > & \mu^* - a(s',t) + a(s',t) = \mu^* \\ \textup{assumed} & (1) \textup{ is false} & \\ \end{matrix}$

and

$\begin{matrix} \mu_i + 2a(s,t) & > & \overline{x}_{i,s} + a(s, t) \geq \overline{x}^*_{s'} + a(s', t) \\ & (2) \textup{ is false} & \textup{assumed} \\ \end{matrix}$

But putting these two inequalities together gives us precisely that (3) is true:

$\mu^* < \mu_i + 2a(s,t)$

This proves the claim.

By the union bound, the probability that at least one of these events happens is $2t^{-4}$ plus whatever the probability of (3) being true is. But as we said, we’ll pick $m$ to make (3) always false. Indeed $m$ depends on which action $i$ is being played, and if $s \geq m > 8 \log T / \Delta_i^2$ then $2a(s,t) \leq \Delta_i$, and by the definition of $\Delta_i$ we have

$\mu^* - \mu_i - 2a(s,t) \geq \mu^* - \mu_i - \Delta_i = 0$.

Now we can finally piece everything together. The expected value of an event is just its probability of occurring, and so

\displaystyle \begin{aligned} \mathbb{E}(P_i(T)) & \leq m + \sum_{t=1}^\infty \sum_{s=m}^t \sum_{s' = 1}^t \textup{P}(\overline{x}_{i,s} + a(s, t) \geq \overline{x}^*_{s'} + a(s', t)) \\ & \leq \left \lceil \frac{8 \log T}{\Delta_i^2} \right \rceil + \sum_{t=1}^\infty \sum_{s=m}^t \sum_{s' = 1}^t 2t^{-4} \\ & \leq \frac{8 \log T}{\Delta_i^2} + 1 + \sum_{t=1}^\infty \sum_{s=1}^t \sum_{s' = 1}^t 2t^{-4} \\ & = \frac{8 \log T}{\Delta_i^2} + 1 + 2 \sum_{t=1}^\infty t^{-2} \\ & = \frac{8 \log T}{\Delta_i^2} + 1 + \frac{\pi^2}{3} \\ \end{aligned}

The second line is the Chernoff bound we argued above, the third and fourth lines are relatively obvious algebraic manipulations, and the last equality uses the classic solution to Basel’s problem. Plugging this upper bound in to the regret formula we gave in the first paragraph of the proof establishes the bound and proves the theorem.

$\square$

## Implementation and an Experiment

The algorithm is about as simple to write in code as it is in pseudocode. The confidence bound is trivial to implement (though note we index from zero):

def upperBound(step, numPlays):
return math.sqrt(2 * math.log(step + 1) / numPlays)


And the full algorithm is quite short as well. We define a function ub1, which accepts as input the number of actions and a function reward which accepts as input the index of the action and the time step, and draws from the appropriate reward distribution. Then implementing ub1 is simply a matter of keeping track of empirical averages and an argmax. We implement the function as a Python generator, so one can observe the steps of the algorithm and keep track of the confidence bounds and the cumulative regret.

def ucb1(numActions, reward):
payoffSums = [0] * numActions
numPlays = [1] * numActions
ucbs = [0] * numActions

# initialize empirical sums
for t in range(numActions):
payoffSums[t] = reward(t,t)
yield t, payoffSums[t], ucbs

t = numActions

while True:
ucbs = [payoffSums[i] / numPlays[i] + upperBound(t, numPlays[i]) for i in range(numActions)]
action = max(range(numActions), key=lambda i: ucbs[i])
theReward = reward(action, t)
numPlays[action] += 1
payoffSums[action] += theReward

yield action, theReward, ucbs
t = t + 1


The heart of the algorithm is the second part, where we compute the upper confidence bounds and pick the action maximizing its bound.

We tested this algorithm on synthetic data. There were ten actions and a million rounds, and the reward distributions for each action were uniform from $[0,1]$, biased by $1/k$ for some $5 \leq k \leq 15$. The regret and theoretical regret bound are given in the graph below.

The regret of ucb1 run on a simple example. The blue curve is the cumulative regret of the algorithm after a given number of steps. The green curve is the theoretical upper bound on the regret.

Note that both curves are logarithmic, and that the actual regret is quite a lot smaller than the theoretical regret. The code used to produce the example and image are available on this blog’s Github page.

## Next Time

One interesting assumption that UCB1 makes in order to do its magic is that the payoffs are stochastic and independent across rounds. Next time we’ll look at an algorithm that assumes the payoffs are instead adversarial, as we described earlier. Surprisingly, in the adversarial case we can do about as well as the stochastic case. Then, we’ll experiment with the two algorithms on a real-world application.

Until then!