Amazing results of NCISC on Netflix

Last week, I’ve played a little bit with the Netflix prize dataset and NC-ISC. The results are amazingly better than the current state of the art.

Short version

Netflix dataset contains ratings of movies by user. We try to predict unseen good ratings (a few ratings are kept aside in a separate dataset, and we try to see if we can predict that a given user would have rated those particular movies).

I’ve compared state-of-the-art results with my method, NC-ISC. With the best settings, I can predict 24% of the unseen ratings in the first 50 results, compared to 19% for the current best methods. Considering the fact that a non personalized prediction, based on popularity only, gives a 10% score, what we achieved is a 55% improvement over the current state of the art.

This is a huge gain.

And it could be applied to other recommendation problems : music, jobs, social network, products in e-commerce and social shopping, etc.

A bit of context

The Netflix Prize was an open competition held in 2009. The dataset consist of 100M ratings (1-5) given by 400K+ user on 17K+ movies. The original goal was to predict “unseen” ratings with the highest possible accuracy. The measure used was the RMSE (root mean square error) on the hidden ratings.


The RMSE, however, is a very incomplete evaluation measure  (and also it cannot be estimated on the results of NC-ISC, which is one of the reason we haven’t spent much time to compare our results with the state of the art). Indeed, the common task for a recommender system is not to predict the rating you would give a given movie, but to provide you a list of K movies that you could potentially like.

As a result, more and more effort has been put on the so-called top-K recommender task, and as a side effect on learning to rank instead of learning to rate.

I’ve stumbled recently on an interesting paper : Alternating Least Squares for Personalized Ranking by Gabor Takacs and Domonkos Tikk, from RecSys 2012 (which has been covered here), and found myself happy to find a paper with results I could compare to (often, either the metric, or the dataset is at odds with what I can produce/access).

The experiment

So I ran NC-ISC on the same dataset they used in the paper (just keep the top ratings), which reduce the train dataset to 22M ratings and the probe to 400K ratings. At first the results were very disappointing. The main reason for this is that NC-ISC inherently discards any bias on popularity. And the fact is, ranking Movies is a very popularity-biased problem (below we can see that 15000 movies have very few ratings in the test set, while a few movies have 12000 ratings) :

Distribution Ratings Netflix

However, while NC-ISC cannot perform rating prediction natively, and discards popularity in both its learning and its ranking, it’s quite easy to put popularity back into the learning, and back into the ranking. Putting it back in the ranking simply means to multiply the score produced by NC-ISC by each movie popularity. Putting popularity back into the learning means decreasing the unbiasing factor in NC-ISC.

The results

And here we come (I’ve added my results as an overlay to the original paper figure). Just a disclaimer : while I’ve reproduced results from the popularity baseline, I didn’t have the time to check the implicit ALS results (I’ve got an implementation here in Octave that take hours to run), so I’m not 100% confident I haven’t missed something in the reproduction of the experiment.


I’ve added a mark for 100 features, which wasn’t in the original paper, probably since there results tended to stop improving.


A short note about NCISC performance versus ImplicitALS, RankALS and RankSGD. First, while SGD takes on average 30 iterations to converge, ALS and NCISC takes between 5 and 10 iterations.

Regarding iteration time, while Takacs and Tikk give their timings for Y!Music data, I could only work top Netflix ratings dataset. However, the two datasets have approximately the same number of ratings (22M) and approximately the same total number of elements (17700 + 480189 = 497889 for Netflix, 249012+296111= 545123 for Y!Music).

Finally, I’ve run my unoptimized algorithm using 1 core of a Core i7 980 (cpumark score 8823 for 6 cores), while they have used 1 core of a Xeon E5405  (2894 for 4 cores) to run their unoptimized RankALS and ImplicitALS and optimized RankSGD algorithms. The rescaling factor to account for the processor difference is thus exactly 2 (!)

Here are my rescaled timings and the original timings of the other methods (remember it’s not an optimized version, though):

method #5 #10 #20 #50 #100
NC-ISC 1 2 4 10 25
ImplicitALS 82 102 152 428 1404
RankALS 167 190 243 482 1181
RankSGD 21 25 30 42 65
RankSGD2 26 32 40 61 102

 Time (seconds) per iteration for various # of features.

Speedup range from x3 to x167 per iteration (for SGD you should account for the increased number of iterations required). I’ve generally observed that my optimized implementations of NC-ISC run 10 to 20 times faster than my Matlab implementation.

eXenSa / Pivot / eXenGine

I just realized that I haven’t posted a single word about the fate of our SalesAdviser product (SaaS recommendations for e-commerce). I’ve had this project to publish a video of me explaining why we failed at it, but I think I won’t have time to devote to this before long. So let’s write it here.

We’ve decided to stop the SalesAdviser product in July, 2014 because it didn’t catch up commercially speaking. Main reasons for this failure are :

  • Too much focus on the technology for a business that wasn’t so much technological : NC-ISC is a great stuff, no doubt about that, but if you have the best engine in the world, maybe you shouldn’t try to sell cars for elderly people. They don’t care about the technology, they don’t understand it, and they won’t use it to its potential.
  • No beta-test customer / no customer in the direct network. We had a few indirect connections with e-commerce people, but nobody directly involved in using/testing our service to help us drive it in the right direction.
  • A Business Model that seemed to hurt our customers feelings : one of the great ideas (we thought) for SalesAdviser was to be paid on a percentage of the sales made through the recommendations. And I think “percentage of the sales” is a repellant for the people in e-commerce

Whatever the real reasons are, we didn’t make it with this project. So we decided to pivot toward an “engine maker” business model, and we started by doing some consulting, and writing a complete data processing workflow with NCISC at the core.

It took us between mid-October and mid-February to reach the beta status for eXenGine and deploy a demo with the wikipedia analysis.

Now we have our first customers, and we are looking forward new ones who want to use a better engine than all their competitors.

New blog

Dotclear has served me well for a few years, but this last month I have been unable to log into the admin section, which is a bit of a problem…

So I’ve moved to the great WordPress, and I’m quite happy with that.

eXenSa : new site, video teaser, we have moved

We’ve made a lot of progress at eXenSa, and I’ve had less and less time to publish our results (also, since we’ve moved to a more sensible kind of data, I can hardly publish results about it).

On the entrepreneurship front, the news are excellent :

  • Brand new website with a video teaser (english version here)
  • We’ve moved in a new place
  • First customers are beginning to knock at the door (the product is ready but I want to make sure it’s perfect before opening the registration process to everyone, so we start a pilot program with choosen customers)

On the science front, we’ve made a lot of progress, thanks to the help of the Centre Francilien de l’Innovation and the famous Credit Impot Recherche which allowed us to do our research with a relative peace of mind. Major improvements have been made, mainly on two points :

  • the core embedding computation methods have been made more robust in some conditions
  • the knowledge injection mecanism has been vastly improved, especially from the point of view of inference

That’s all for now, I still have got a lot to do to make this a business success :)