Incremental learning of interpretable classification rules

Bishwamittra Ghosh

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Machine learning models are now being deployed in the critical decision making, for example, hiring employees, giving a loan to a person, predicting recidivism, etc. Therefore, end-users need to trust the model. Our primary motivation for this work is to design an interpretable rule-based classification model, which generates highly interpretable smaller rules.

Example of interpretable classification rules

First, take a look at the Iris dataset, where each row represents a sample, and each column represents a feature/attribute of the Iris flower. An Iris flower has four features: sepal length, sepal width, petal length, and petal width. In supervised learning, each sample has a class label, i.e., there are three classes in the Iris dataset: Setosa, Versicolor, and Virginica. We can learn the following interpretable rule on the Iris dataset.

Iris dataset

A sample is predicted Iris Versicolor if
(sepal length $ > 6.3$ $\textbf{OR}$ sepal width $ > 3$ $\textbf{OR}$ petal width $\le 1.5 $ ) $ \textbf{AND} $
(sepal width $ \le 2.7$ $\textbf{OR} $ petal length $ > 4$ $ \textbf{OR} $ petal width $ >1.2 $) $ \textbf{AND} $
(petal length $ \le 5 $)

We can parse the above rule in the following way. An Iris flower is predicted as Iris Versicolor if it satisfies the rule. The rule is a conjunction of three clauses, where each clause is a disjunction of literals. A literal (i.e., sepal length $ > 6.3$) can take binary decisions (true or false). In the above rule, a clause is satisfied when at least one literal is satisfied, and the rule is satisfied when all clauses are satisfied. In this work, we are interested in learning classification rules in the form of logical formulas.

Revisiting logical formulas

A logical formula in CNF (Conjunctive Normal Form) is a conjunction of clauses, where each clause is a disjunction of literals. Moreover, a formula in DNF (Disjunctive Normal Form) is a disjunction of clauses, where each clause is a conjunction of literals. Given Boolean propositional variables $ \{a,b,c,d,e\}$, an example of a CNF formula is $(a \vee \neg b \vee c ) \wedge (d \vee e)$, and an example of a DNF formula is $(a \wedge b \wedge \neg c ) \vee (d \wedge e)$. Here $\neg a$ denotes the complement of $a$. In several studies [Malioutov et al., 2018; Lakkaraju et al., 2019], it is found that classification rules in the form of CNF/DNF are highly interpretable.

Definition of Interpretibility

Defining the interpretability of a classifier is a challenging task. We have narrowed down our look into rule-based classifiers and find that smaller rules suffice in various practical domains, specifically in the medical domain. The reason is that compared to larger rules, smaller rules are within reach of human understandability. Therefore, we refer to the size of the rules as a proxy in interpretability. In CNF/DNF rules, rule size can be the total number of literals in the formula.

Objective function and constraints

In the standard binary classification problem, we have designed an objective function to minimize both the prediction accuracy and the size of the desired rule, so that the classifier can learn accurate interpretable rules. In our model, features can take only binary values (0 or 1). For datasets with categorical and continuous features, we have applied standard discretization techniques to convert them into binary features. To learn a $k$-clause rule, we consider two types of Boolean propositional variables:

(i) feature variable $ b_i^j = {1}\{j\text{-th feature} \text{ is selected in } i \text{-th clause} \}$,
(ii) noise variable (classification error) $ \eta_q = {1}\{\text{sample } q \text{ is misclassified}\} $.

We have considered feature variables for both positive (1) feature value and negative (0) feature value in the binary featured dataset. In the following, we define the objective function. $$\min \sum_{i,j} b_i^j + \lambda \sum_q \eta_q$$ $\lambda$ is the data fidelity parameter deciding the trade-off between interpretability and accuracy. In this work, we optimize the objective function subject to the constraints that a positive labeled sample satisfies the learned rule, and a negative labeled sample does not satisfy the rule, otherwise the sample is considered as a classification noise.

We encode the discrete optimization problem as a MaxSAT query and use a MaxSAT solver for the assignment of the decision variables $b_i^j$ and $\eta_q $.

Revisiting MaxSAT

The maximum satisfiability problem (MaxSAT) is an optimization analog to the propositional satisfiability problem (SAT). In SAT, the goal is to find an assignment to the Boolean variables that satisfies all the clauses. In MaxSAT, the objective is to find an assignment that satisfies most of the clauses. We consider a weighted variant of the CNF formula, where each clause is associated with weight and solve the partial weighted MaxSAT formula. Based on the weight, there are two types of clauses.

(i) Hard clause: the weight is $\infty $
(ii) Soft clause: each clause can take weight $\in \mathbb{R}^+ $

In partial weighted MaxSAT, the goal is to find an assignment to the variables that satisfies all hard clauses and most of the soft clauses such that the weight of the satisfied soft clauses in maximized.

MaxSAT encoding

We encode the above objective function as soft clauses and the constraints as hard clauses to construct the MaxSAT query (please refer to the paper for details). We can use any off-the-shelf MaxSAT solver to solve the query. We finally construct the rule based on the assignment to the feature variables $b_i^j$.

We have analyzed the complexity of the MaxSAT query in terms of the number of clauses in the MaxSAT formula. To generate a $ k $-clause CNF rule for a dataset of $ n $ samples over $ m $ boolean features, the number of clauses of the MaxSAT instance is $ \mathcal{O}(n\cdot m \cdot k) $. Therefore, the formula becomes large when the dataset has many samples. In the following, we propose an incremental mini-batch approach for learning interpretable classification rules.

An Incremental Rule-learning Approach

Iris dataset

We now discuss an incremental mini-batch learning approach, which can scale to large datasets. In this approach, we first split the datasets into a fixed number $p$ of batches. We propose to update the rule $\mathcal{R}$ incrementally over batches. The rule $\mathcal{R}_t$ in batch $t$ depends on the samples in the current batch and also the rule $\mathcal{R}_{t-1}$ learned in the previous batch. Note that, only the feature variable $b_i^j$ is shared in all batches because the samples in all batches have similar features. Therefore, while learning $\mathcal{R}_t$ we already know the assignment to $b_i^j$ in the previous ($t-1$) batch. In the incremetal approach, we consider the following objective function in batch $t$. $$ \min \sum_{i,j} b_i^j \cdot I(b_i^j)+ \lambda \sum_q \eta_q. $$ where indicator function $ I(\cdot) $ is defined as follows. $$ I(b_i^j)= \begin{cases} -1 \quad \text{if } b_i^j =1 \text{ in the } (t-1) \text{-th batch } (t \ne 1) \\ 1 \quad \text{otherwise} \end{cases} $$ Intuitively, the objective function tries to keep the previous assignment to the feature variable $b_i^j$ while learning $\mathcal{R}_t$ in the current batch.

Improvement: The incremental approach makes $ p $ queries to the MaxSAT solver with each query of the formula size $ \mathcal{O}(\frac{n}{p}\cdot m \cdot k) $.

Key experimental results

(i) The incremental approach achieves up to three orders of magnitude improvement in training time by sacrificing a bit of accuracy.
(ii) This approach generates shorter rules compared to other rule-based models.
(iii) The number of batches provides a smooth trade-off between training time and prediction accuracy.


The interpretable machine learning model ensures the reliability of prediction models in practice. We propose an incremental rule learning framework, which makes a step towards making the prediction model more reliable and trustworthy. This approach not only achieves an improvement in scalability but also generates shorter interpretable rules.

We have released a python library for this framework. The source code is also available in the Github repo.


[Malioutov et al., 2018] Dmitry Maliotov and Kuldeep S Meel. MLIC: A MaxSAT-Based Framework for Learning Interpretable Classification Rules. In Proc. of CP, 2018.

[Lakkaraju et al., 2019] Himabindu Lakkaraju, Ece Kamar, Rich Caruana, and Jure Leskovec. Faithful and customizable explanations of black box models. In Proc. of AIES, 2019.