Clustering Redemption–Beyond the Impossibility of Kleinberg’s Axioms

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 31 (NeurIPS 2018)

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Vincent Cohen-Addad, Varun Kanade, Frederik Mallmann-Trenn


Kleinberg (2002) stated three axioms that any clustering procedure should satisfy and showed there is no clustering procedure that simultaneously satisfies all three. One of these, called the consistency axiom, requires that when the data is modified in a helpful way, i.e. if points in the same cluster are made more similar and those in different ones made less similar, the algorithm should output the same clustering. To circumvent this impossibility result, research has focused on considering clustering procedures that have a clustering quality measure (or a cost) and showing that a modification of Kleinberg’s axioms that takes cost into account lead to feasible clustering procedures. In this work, we take a different approach, based on the observation that the consistency axiom fails to be satisfied when the “correct” number of clusters changes. We modify this axiom by making use of cost functions to determine the correct number of clusters, and require that consistency holds only if the number of clusters remains unchanged. We show that single linkage satisfies the modified axioms, and if the input is well-clusterable, some popular procedures such as k-means also satisfy the axioms, taking a step towards explaining the success of these objective functions for guiding the design of algorithms.