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Machine learning in SE research is a bigger train wreck than I imagined

I am at the CREST Workshop on Predictive Modelling for Software Engineering this week.

Magne Jørgensen, who virtually single handed continues to move software cost estimation research forward, kicked-off proceedings. Unfortunately he is not a natural speaker and I think most people did not follow the points he was trying to get over; don’t panic, read his papers.

In the afternoon I learned that use of machine learning in software engineering research is a bigger train wreck that I had realised.

Machine learning is great for situations where you have data from an application domain that you don’t know anything about. Lets say you want to do fault prediction but don’t have any practical experience of software engineering (because you are an academic who does not write much code), what do you do? Well you could take some source code measurements (usually on a per-file basis, which is a joke given that many of the metrics often used only have meaning on a per-function basis, e.g., Halstead and cyclomatic complexity) and information on the number of faults reported in each of these files and throw it all into a machine learner to figure the patterns and build a predictor (e.g., to predict which files are most likely to contain faults).

There are various ways of measuring the accuracy of the predictions made by a model and there is a growing industry of researchers devoted to publishing papers showing that their model does a better job at prediction than anything else that has been published (yes, they really do argue over a percent or two; use of confidence bounds is too technical for them and would kill their goose).

I long ago learned to ignore papers on machine learning in software engineering. Yes, sooner or later somebody will do something interesting and I will miss it, but will have retained my sanity.

Today I learned that many researchers have been using machine learning “out of the box”, that is using whatever default settings the code uses by default. How did I learn this? Well, one of the speakers talked about using R’s carat package to tune the options available in many machine learners to build models with improved predictive performance. Some slides showed that the performance of carat tuned models were often substantially better than the non-carat tuned model and many people in the room were aghast; “If true, this means that all existing papers [based on machine learning] are dead” (because somebody will now come along and build a better model using carat; cannot recall whether “dead” or some other term was used, but you get the idea), “I use the defaults because of concerns about breaking the code by using inappropriate options” (obviously somebody untroubled by knowledge of how machine learning works).

I think that use of machine learning, for the purpose of prediction (using it to build models to improve understanding is ok), in software engineering research should be banned. Of course there are too many clueless researchers who need the crutch of machine learning to generate results that can be included in papers that stand some chance of being published.

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