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Universal prediction

A philosophical investigation
PhD ceremony:Mr T.F. (Tom) Sterkenburg
When:January 18, 2018
Supervisors:prof. dr. J.W. (Jan-Willem) Romeijn, prof. dr. P. Grünwald
Where:Academy building RUG
Universal prediction

In this thesis I investigate the theoretical possibility of a universal method of prediction. A prediction method is universal if it is always able to learn from data: if it is always able to extrapolate given data about past observations to maximally successful predictions about future observations. The context of this investigation is the broader philosophical question into the possibility of a formal specification of inductive or scientific reasoning, a question that also touches on modern-day speculation about a fully automatized data-driven science.

I investigate, in particular, a specific mathematical definition of a universal prediction method, that goes back to the early days of artificial intelligence and that has a direct line to modern developments in machine learning. This definition essentially aims to combine all possible prediction algorithms. An alternative interpretation is that this definition formalizes the idea that learning from data is equivalent to compressing data. In this guise, the definition is often presented as an implementation and even as a justification of Occam's razor, the principle that we should look for simple explanations. The conclusions of my investigation are negative. I show that the proposed definition cannot be interpreted as a universal prediction method, as turns out to be exposed by a mathematical argument that it was actually intended to overcome. Moreover, I show that the suggested justification of Occam's razor does not work, and I argue that the relevant notion of simplicity as compressibility is problematic itself.