On the consistency of top-k surrogate losses

Part of Proceedings of the International Conference on Machine Learning 1 pre-proceedings (ICML 2020)

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Forest Yang, Sanmi Koyejo


The top-$k$ error is often employed to evaluate performance for challenging classification tasks in computer vision as it is designed to compensate for ambiguity in ground truth labels. This practical success motivates our theoretical analysis of consistent top-$k$ classification. To this end, we provide a characterization of Bayes optimality by defining a top-$k$ preserving property, which is new and fixes a non-uniqueness gap in prior work. Then, we define top-$k$ calibration and show it is necessary and sufficient for consistency. Based on the top-$k$ calibration analysis, we propose a rich class of top-$k$ calibrated Bregman divergence surrogates. Our analysis continues by showing previously proposed hinge-like top-$k$ surrogate losses are not top-$k$ calibrated and thus inconsistent. On the other hand, we propose two new hinge-like losses, one which is similarly inconsistent, and one which is consistent. Our empirical results highlight theoretical claims, confirming our analysis of the consistency of these losses.