Learning Embeddings for Indexing, Retrieval, and Classification, with Applications to Object and Shape Recognition in Image Databases
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Nearest neighbor retrieval is the task of identifying, given a database of objects and a query object, the objects in the database that are the most similar to the query. Retrieving nearest neighbors is a necessary component of many practical applications, in fields as diverse as computer vision, pattern recognition, multimedia databases, bioinformatics, and computer networks. At the same time, finding nearest neighbors accurately and efficiently can be challenging, especially when the database contains a large number of objects, and when the underlying distance measure is computationally expensive. This thesis proposes new methods for improving the efficiency and accuracy of nearest neighbor retrieval and classification in spaces with computationally expensive distance measures. The proposed methods are domain-independent, and can be applied in arbitrary spaces, including non-Euclidean and non-metric spaces. In this thesis particular emphasis is given to computer vision applications related to object and shape recognition, where expensive non-Euclidean distance measures are often needed to achieve high accuracy. The first contribution of this thesis is the BoostMap algorithm for embedding arbitrary spaces into a vector space with a computationally efficient distance measure. Using this approach, an approximate set of nearest neighbors can be retrieved efficiently - often orders of magnitude faster than retrieval using the exact distance measure in the original space. The BoostMap algorithm has two key distinguishing features with respect to existing embedding methods. First, embedding construction explicitly maximizes the amount of nearest neighbor information preserved by the embedding. Second, embedding construction is treated as a machine learning problem, in contrast to existing methods that are based on geometric considerations. The second contribution is a method for constructing query-sensitive distance measures for the purposes of nearest neighbor retrieval and classification. In high-dimensional spaces, query-sensitive distance measures allow for automatic selection of the dimensions that are the most informative for each specific query object. It is shown theoretically and experimentally that query-sensitivity increases the modeling power of embeddings, allowing embeddings to capture a larger amount of the nearest neighbor structure of the original space. The third contribution is a method for speeding up nearest neighbor classification by combining multiple embedding-based nearest neighbor classifiers in a cascade. In a cascade, computationally efficient classifiers are used to quickly classify easy cases, and classifiers that are more computationally expensive and also more accurate are only applied to objects that are harder to classify. An interesting property of the proposed cascade method is that, under certain conditions, classification time actually decreases as the size of the database increases, a behavior that is in stark contrast to the behavior of typical nearest neighbor classification systems. The proposed methods are evaluated experimentally in several different applications: hand shape recognition, off-line character recognition, online character recognition, and efficient retrieval of time series. In all datasets, the proposed methods lead to significant improvements in accuracy and efficiency compared to existing state-of-the-art methods. In some datasets, the general-purpose methods introduced in this thesis even outperform domain-specific methods that have been custom-designed for such datasets.