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The final version of my thesis "Efficient and Accurate Non-Metric k-NN Search with Applications to Text Matching" is now available online. An important by-product of my research is an efficient NMSLIB library, which I develop jointly with other folks. In a podcast with Radim Řehůřek (Gensim author) I discuss this project, its goals, and its history in detail.

Although efficiency is an important part of the thesis, it is primarily not about efficiency. Most importantly, I try to deliver the following messages:

  1. We have very flexible retrieval tools, in particular, graph-based retrieval algorithms, which can work well for a wide variety of similarity functions. In other words, we do not have to limit ourselves neither to inner-product similarities (e.g., the Euclidean distance) nor to even metric spaces.
  2. When "queries" are long, these algorithms can challenge traditional term-based inverted files. So, in the future, I expect retrieval systems to rely less on classic term-based inverted files and more on generic k-NN search algorithms (including graph-based retrieval algorithms). I think it is not a question of "IF", but rather a question of "WHEN".

Graph-based retrieval is an old new idea, which has been around for more than twenty years. This idea is beautifully simple: Build a graph where sufficiently close points are connected by edges. Such graphs come in various flavors and can be collectively called neighborhood graphs or proximity graphs. Given a neighborhood graph, nearest neighbor and other queries can be answered (mostly only approximately) by traversing the graph in a direction towards the query (and starting from, e.g., a random node). I cover the history of this idea in my thesis in more detail, but the earliest reference for this approach that I know is the seminal paper by Sunil Arya and David Mount (BTW, David Mount is co-author of the well-known ANN library).

Despite this early discovery, the practicality of graph-based retrieval in high-dimensional spaces was limited because we did not know how to construct neighborhood graphs efficiently. As it often happens in science, a number of fancy methods were proposed (while overlooking a simpler working one). Luckily, it was discovered that the graph can be constructed by iteratively building the graph and using a graph-based retrieval algorithm to find nearest neighbors for a new data point. A summit (or at least a local maximum) of this endevour is a Hierarchical Navigable Small World graph (HNSW) method, which combines efficient pruning graph-pruning heuristics, a multi-layer and multi-resolution graph topology with a bunch of efficiency tricks.

It was also known (but not well-known) that graph-based retrieval algorithms can work for generic (mostly metric) distances. So, I personally was interested in pushing these (and other) methods even further and applying them to non-metric and non-symmetric similarities. One ultimate objective was to replace or complement a standard term-based inverted file in the text retrieval scenario. Well, the idea to apply k-NN search to text retrieval is not novel (see, again, my thesis for some references). However, I do no think that anybody has shown convincingly that this is a viable approach.

On the way towards achieving this objective, there are a lot of difficulties. First of all, it is not clear which representations of text and queries one can use (I have somewhat explored this direction, but the problem is clearly quite hard). Ideally, we would represent everything as dense vectors, but I do not think that the cosine similarity between dense vectors is particularly effective in the domain of adhoc text retrieval (it works better for classification, though). I am also convinced that in many cases whenever dense representations work well, a combination of dense and sparse bag-of-words representations works even better. Should we embrace these hybrid representations in the future, we cannot use traditional term-based inverted files directly (i.e., without doing a simpler search with subsequent re-ranking). Instead, we are likely to rely on more generic algorithms for k-nearest neighbor (k-NN) search.

Second, instead of trying to search using a complex similarity, we can use such a similarity only for re-ranking. Of course, there should be obviously limits to the re-ranking approach. However, a re-ranking bag-of-words pipeline (possibly with some query rewriting) is a baseline that is hard to beat.

Third, k-NN search is a notoriously hard problem, which in many cases cannot be solved exactly without sequentially comparing the query with every data point (the so called brute-force search). This is due to a well-known phenomenon called the curse of dimensionality. Often we have to resort to using approximate search algorithms, but these algorithms are not necessarily accurate. How much inaccuracy is ok? From my experimental results I conclude that the leeway is quite small: We can trade a bit of accuracy for extra efficiency, but not too much.

Because approximate k-NN search leads to loss in accuracy, in my opinion, it does not make sense to use it with simple similarities like BM25. Instead, we should be trying to construct a similarity that beats BM25 by a good margin and do retrieval using this fancier similarity. My conjecture is that by doing so we can be more accurate and more efficient at the same time! This is one of the central ideas of my thesis. On one collection I got promising results supporting this conjecture (which is BTW an improvement of our CIKM'16 results). However, more needs to be done, in particular, by comparing against potentially stronger baselines.

In conclusion, I note that this work would have been impossible without encouragement, inspiration, help, and advice of many people. Foremost, I would like to thank my advisor Eric Nyberg for his guidance, encouragement, patience, and assistance. I greatly appreciate his participation in writing a grant proposal to fund my research topic. I also thank my thesis committee: Jamie Callan, James Allan, Alex Hauptmann, and Shane Culpepper for their feedback.

I express deep and sincere gratitude to my family. I am especially thankful to my wife Anna, who made this adventure possible, and to my mother Valentina who encouraged and supported both me and Anna.

I thank my co-authors Bileg Naidan, David Novak, and Yury Malkov each of whom greatly helped me. Bileg sparked my interest in non-metric search methods and laid the foundation of our NMSLIB library. Yury made key improvements to the graph-based search algorithms. David greatly improved performance of pivot-based search algorithms, which allowed us to obtain first strong results for text retrieval.

I thank Chris Dyer for the discussion of IBM Model 1; Nikita Avrelin and Alexander Ponomarenko for implementing the first version of SW-graph in NMSLIB; Yubin Kim and Hamed Zamani for the discussion of pseudo-relevance feedback techniques (Hamed also greatly helped with Galago); Chenyan Xiong for the helpful discussion on embeddings and entities; Daniel Lemire for providing the implementation of the SIMD intersection algorithm; Lawrence Cayton for providing the data sets, the bbtree code, and answering our questions; Christian Beecks for answering questions regarding the Signature Quadratic Form Distance; Giuseppe Amato and Eric S. Tellez for help with data sets; Lu Jiang for the helpful discussion of image retrieval algorithms; Vladimir Pestov for the discussion on the curse of dimensionality; Mike Denkowski for the references on BLUE-style metrics; Karina Figueroa Mora for proposing experiments with the metric VP-tree applied directly to non-metric data. I also thank Stacey Young, Jennifer Lucas, and Kelly Widmaier for their help.

I also greatly appreciate the support from the National Science Foundation, which has been funding this project for two years.