Gradient Descent

Published May 18, 2023Updated Jul 7, 2023
Contribute to Docs

Gradient descent is an optimization search algorithm that is widely used in machine learning to train neural networks and other models. It is a fundamental optimization algorithm that is used in many fields of artificial intelligence, such as natural language processing, computer vision, and robotics.

How Does Gradient Descent Work?

Gradient descent works by minimizing the cost (or loss) function of a model. Cost functions measure the performance of machine learning models by quantifying the difference between the predicted and actual outputs. A low cost function indicates that a model is performing well on the training data because its predicted output values are close to the actual output values.

Gradient descent is an iterative optimization algorithm, which means that it iteratively, or repeatedly, updates the parameters of a model until a specific outcome is achieved. Parameters can be thought of as the “settings” for a machine learning model. The purpose of gradient descent is to iterate until the local or global minimum is found in a given solution space or “local neighborhood.” The “gradient” refers to the rate of change, or slope, of the cost function. Thus, a gradient descent algorithm iteratively moves down (descends) the gradient (slope of the cost function) to find the minimum point, which represents the optimal values (the best performance) for the model in the given context.

In each iteration of the algorithm, the following steps are performed:

  1. Compute the gradient: The gradient is computed to determine the direction of steepest descent of the cost function, guiding the algorithm towards the minimum.
  2. Update parameters: Based on the calculated gradient, the algorithm updates the model’s parameters. The magnitude of these updates is determined by the learning rate, which is a specified value chosen by the data scientist/engineer that controls the step size.
  3. Calculate the cost function: The cost function is recalculated using the updated parameters, providing a measure of how well the model is currently performing.

These steps are repeated iteratively until a stopping criterion is met, such as reaching a maximum number of iterations or achieving a desired level of convergence. The number of iterations and the convergence criterion are typically set by the data scientist/engineer implementing the gradient descent algorithm.

Gradient Descent and Machine Learning

Gradient descent is a fundamental optimization algorithm widely used in machine learning. An advantage of gradient descent is its ability to handle models with a large number of parameters, making it suitable for complex machine learning tasks. It is especially valuable when dealing with non-linear data, where patterns and relationships are not easily captured by simple linear models.

Gradient descent is a simple, efficient, and flexible algorithm that can be scaled to multiple different machine learning tasks and datasets with large amounts of data. By leveraging computed gradients, the algorithm guides iterative parameter adjustments, which leads to enhanced model performance over time.

Additionally, there are different variations of gradient descent which can be customized for specific tasks. For example, mini-batch gradient descent and stochastic gradient descent are specialized versions that offer efficiency advantages in different scenarios.

Gradient Descent Challenges

Although gradient descent is commonly used in machine learning, there are also some challenges, such as:

  • Learning rate selection: The learning rate selected can significantly impact the algorithm’s performance, and choosing an appropriate learning rate is crucial. If the learning rate is too low, the algorithm will be slow, but if the learning rate is too high, the algorithm may overshoot the minimum.
  • Overfitting: The algorithm can overfit the training data, which leads to poor performance on new data. This is more likely to happen if the learning rate selected is too high or if the model is too complex.
  • Convergence to local minima: Converging to a local minimum can be problematic if the cost function has many local minima. In these cases, the algorithm should search for a global minimum.

All contributors

Looking to contribute?

Learn AI on Codecademy