The EM algorithm and Gaussian mixture models – part II

In this post, I will discuss the general form of the EM algorithm to obtain a maximum likelihood estimator for a model with latent variables.

First, let us describe our model. We suppose that we are given some joint distribution of a random variable X (the observed variables) and and random variable Z (the latent variables) and are interested in maximizing the likelihood of an observed sample x of the visible variable X. We also assume that the joint distribution depends on a parameter \Theta, in practice this could be weights, bias terms or any other parameters. To simplify things a bit, we will also assume that the latent variable is finite. Our aim is to maximize the log likelihood, which we can – under these assumptions – express as follows.

\ln P(x |\Theta) = \ln \sum_z P(x,z | \Theta)

Even if the joint distribution belongs to some exponential family, the fact that we need to consider the logarithm of the sum and not the sum of the logarithms makes this expression and its gradient difficult to calculate. So let us look for a different approach.

To do this, let us assume that we are given a value \Theta of the parameter and let us try to understand how the likelihood changes if we pass from \Theta to some other value \Theta'. For that purpose, we introduce a term that is traditionally called Q and defined as follows (all this is a bit abstract, but will become clearer later when we do an example):

Q(\Theta'; \Theta) = E \left[  \ln P(x,z | \Theta')  | x, \Theta \right]

That looks a bit complicated, so let me explain the notation a bit. We want to define a function Q that will be a function of the new parameter value \Theta'. This function will, in addition, depend on the current value \Theta which we consider as a parameter.

The right hand side is an expectation value. In fact, for each value of the visible variable x and the parameter \Theta, we have a probability distribution on the space in which Z lives, given by the conditional probability of Z given x and \Theta. Whenever we have a function depending on z, we can therefore form the expectation value as usual, i.e. as the weighted sum over all function values, weighted by the probability of z. In particular, we can do this for the function \ln P(x,z | \Theta') of z. Thus the right hand side is, spelled out

E \left[  \ln P(x,z | \Theta')  | x, \Theta \right] = \sum_z \ln P(x,z | \Theta') P(z | x, \Theta)

That is now again a sum of logarithms, not a logarithm of a sum, and we can hope to be able to deal with this much better.

This is nice, but so far we have only introduced a rather complicated additional object – what do we gain? It turns out that essentially, maxizing Q will effectively maximize the likelihood. Let us make this bold statement a bit more precise. Suppose we are able to iteratively maximize Q. Expressed formally, this would mean that we are able to find a sequence \Theta^0, \Theta^1, \dots of parameters such that when passing from \Theta^t to \Theta^{t+1}, the value of Q does not decrease, i.e.

Q(\Theta^{(t+1)};\Theta^{(t)}) \geq Q(\Theta^{(t)} ; \Theta^{(t)})

Then this very same sequence will be a sequence of parameters for which the log-likelihood is non-decreasing as well, i.e.

\ln P(x | \Theta^{(t+1)}) \geq \ln P(x | \Theta^{(t)})

I will not include a proof for this in this post (the proof identifies the difference between any two subsequent steps as a Kullback-Leibler divergence and makes use of the fact that a Kullback-Leibler divergence is never negative, you can find a a proof in the references, in particular in [2], or in my more detailed notes on the EM algorithm and Gaussian mixture models, where I also briefly touch on convergence). Instead, let us try to understand how this can be used in practice.

Suppose that we have already constructed some parameter \Theta^t. The algorithm then proceeds in two steps. First, we calculate Q as a function of the new parameter \Theta^{t+1}. As Q is defined as an expectation value, this step is called the expectation step. Once we have that, we try to maximize Q, i.e. we try to find a value for the parameter \Theta^{t+1} such that Q(\Theta^{t+1}; \Theta^t) is maximized. This part of the algorithm is therefore called the maximization step. Then we start over, using \Theta^{t+1} as new starting point. Thus the algorithm alternates between an expectation and a maximization step, leading to the name EM algorithm.

To see how this works in practice, let us now return to our original example – Gaussian mixtures. Here the parameter \Theta is given by

\Theta = (\mu, \pi, \Sigma)

We consider a random variable X which has N components, each of which being a vector Xn in a d-dimensional space and corresponding to one sample vector (so in the language of machine learning, N will be our batch size). Similarly, Z consists of N components zn which again are subject to the restriction that only one of the znk be different from zero. We assume that the joint representation of our model is given by

P(x , z) = \prod_n \prod_k \pi_k^{z_{nk}}{\mathcal N} (x_n, \mu_k , \Sigma_k)^{z_{nk}}

Now we need to compute Q. The calculation is a bit lengthy, and I will skip most of it here (you can find the details in the references or my notes for this post). To state the result, we have to introduce a quantity called responsibility which is defined as follows.

r_{nk} = \frac{\pi_k {\mathcal N}(x_n ; \mu_k, \Sigma_k)} {\sum_{j} \pi_j {\mathcal N}(x_n ; \mu_j, \Sigma_j) }

From this definition, is it clear that the responsibility is always between zero and one, and in fact is has an interpretation of a (conditional) probability that sample n belongs to cluster k. Note that the responsibility is a function of the model parameters \mu, \pi and \Sigma. Using this notation, we can now write down the result of calculating the Q function:

Q(\Theta'; \Theta) = \sum_n \sum_k r_{nk} \ln \pi'_k + \sum_n \sum_k r_{nk} \ln {\mathcal N}(x ; \mu'_k, \Sigma'_k)

where the responsibilities are calculated using the old parameter set \Theta = (\mu, \pi, \Sigma). For a fixed \Theta, this is a function of the new parameters \mu', \pi' and \Sigma', and we can now try to maximize this function with respect to these parameters. This calculation is not difficult, but again a bit tiresome (and requires the use of Lagrangian multipliers as there is a constraint on the \pi_k), and I again refer to my notes for the details. When the dust settles, we obtain three simple expressions. First, the new values for the cluster means are given by

\mu'_k = \frac{\sum_n r_{nk} x_n}{\sum_n r_{nk}}

This starts to look familiar – this is the same expression that we did obtain for the cluster centers for the k-means algorithm! In fact, if we arrange the rnk as a matrix, the denominator is the sum across column k and the numerators is the weighted sum over all data points. However, there is one important difference – it is no longer true that given n, only one of the rnk will be different from one. Instead, the rnk are soft assignments that model the probability that the data point xn belongs to cluster k.

To write down the expression for the new value of the covariance matrix, we again need a notation first. Set

N_k = \sum_n r_{nk}

which can be interpreted as the number of soft assignments of points to cluster k. With that notation, the new value for the covariance matrix is

\Sigma'_k = \frac{1}{N_k} \sum_n r_{nk} (x_n - {\mu'}_k)(x_n - {\mu'}_k)^T

Finally, we can use the method of Lagrange multipliers to maximize with respect to the weights \pi_k (which always need to sum up to one), and again obtain a rather simple expression for the new value.

\pi'_k = \frac{N_k}{N}

Again, this is intuitively very appealing – the probability to be in cluster k is updated to be the number of points with a soft assignment to k divided by the total number of assignments

We now have all the ingredients in place to apply the algorithm in practice. Let us summarize how this will work. First, we start with some initial value for the parameters – the weights \pi, the covariance matrices \Sigma_k and the means \mu_k – which could, for instance, be chosen randomly. Then, we calculate the responsibilities as above – essentially, this is the expectation step, as it amounts to finding Q.

In the M-step, we then use these responsibilities and the formulas above to calculate the new values of the weights, the means and the covariance matrix. This involves a few matrix operations, which can be nicely expressed by the operations provide by the numpy library.


In the example above, we have created two sets of 500 sample points from different Gaussian mixture distributions and then applied the k-means algorithm and the EM algorithm. In the top row, we see the results of running the k-means algorithm. The color indicates the result of the algorithm, the shape of the marker indicates the original cluster to which the point belongs. The bottom row displays the results of the EM algorithm, using the same pattern.

We see that while the first sample (diagrams on the left) can be clustered equally well by both algorithms, the k-means algorithm is not able to properly cluster the second sample (diagrams on the right), while the EM algorithm is still able to assign most of the points to the correct cluster.

If you want to run this yourself, you can – as always – find the source code on GitHub. When playing with the code and the parameters, you will notice that the results can differ substantially between two consecutive runs, this is due to the random choice of the initial parameters that have a huge impact on convergence (and sometimes the code will even fail because the covariance matrix can become singular, I have not yet fixed this). Using the switch --data=Iris, you can also apply the EM algorithm to the Iris data set (you need to have a copy of the Iris data file in the current working directory) and find again that the results vary significantly with different starting points.

The EM algorithm has the advantage of being very general, and can therefore be applied to a wide range of problems and not just Gaussian mixture models. A nice example is the Baum Welch algorithm for training Hidden Markov models which is actually an instance of the EM algorithm. The EM algorithm can even be applied to classical multi-layer feed forward networks, treating the hidden units as latent variables, see [3] for an overview and some results. So clearly this algorithm should be part of every Data Scientists toolbox.


1. C.M. Bishop, Pattern recognition and machine learning, Springer, New York 2006
2. A.P. Dempster, N.M. Laird, D.B. Rubin, Maximum likelihood from incomplete data via the EM-algorithm, Journ. Royal Stat. Soc. Series B. Vol. 39 No. 1 (1977), pp. 1-38
3. Shu-Kay Ng, G.J. McLachlan, Using the EM Algorithm to Train Neural Networks: Misconceptions and a New Algorithm for Multiclass Classification, IEEE Transaction on Neural Networks, Vol. 15, No. 3, May 2004

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