aifad /

AIFAD - Automated Induction of Functions over Algebraic Data Types

What is AIFAD?

AIFAD stands for Automated Induction of Functions over Algebraic Data Types and is an application written in OCaml that improves decision tree learning by supporting significantly more complex kinds of data. This allows users to more conveniently describe the data they want to learn functions on and can improve the accuracy and complexity of resulting models.


  • Handles multi-valued attributes. This has already become widespread among decision tree learners, but some implementations still only support binary ones.

  • Allows multiple target attributes. There are hardly any implementations that support this feature in a unified way.

  • Supports structured data, both for input and target attributes. Structured data is still a hot research topic in machine learning.

  • Allows recursive data. AIFAD can learn models for recursive data but only induce non-recursive functions.

  • Handles missing values by allowing users to encode them as option types. This is a clean solution compared to often-employed hacks and has competitive accuracy.

  • Provides several heuristics for generating models, including a generalized gain ratio criterion as used by the state-of-the-art decision tree learner C4.5.

  • Can read data specifications as understood by C4.5.

  • Pretty efficient. Even though it was written to handle structured data, it is only about 3-5 times slower than C4.5 on datasets that the latter supports. The memory footprint is somewhat larger due to the impossibility of performing certain operations in-place, but still low enough to handle even large datasets (hundreds of thousands of samples with 10s of attributes) on stock hardware.

AIFAD essentially offers you the same amount of expressiveness on both sides of the data (input and output). Discrete data specifications as supported by more common decision tree learners (e.g. C4.5) are a strict subcase of algebraic data types as used in AIFAD. Furthermore, all kinds of algorithms that operate on "normal" decision trees (e.g. pruning algorithms) should be generalizable to the more expressive representation.

Missing Features

  • Cannot (yet) handle numerical values. Users can work around this by preprocessing numeric data to cast it into discrete domains. Since AIFAD supports structured data, encodings more flexible than mere assignment to "flat" domains can be used. This will likely improve predictive accuracy. If there is numerical data in C4.5-data, AIFAD will ignore it during learning, thus only considering discrete data.

  • Does not (yet) provide post-pruning. Can be easily added (e.g. reduced error pruning).

  • Cannot (yet) learn recursive functions.


Specification of Algebraic Data Types

Before AIFAD can learn from data, you will have to tell it what your data looks like. This requires creating a file with the extension .ads (algebraic data type specification), which contains a set of (possibly recursive) type equations. If you happen to know modern functional or logic programming languages, this concept will be common to you.

Here is an example of a specification file (file examples/ in the distribution):

# This is a comment

diameter = Large | Small.

cheese = Mozzarella | Gorgonzola.

topping = Cheese cheese | Tomatoes | Mushrooms.

spiced = False | True.

meal =
  | WienerSchnitzel diameter
  | Pizza (diameter * spiced * topping)
  | TapirSoup spiced.

drink = Water | Beer | Wine.

satisfaction = Low | High | Very satisfaction.

domain = meal.
codomain = satisfaction.

The above equations contain the name of data types on their left-hand side and their specification on the right-hand side. For example, a value of type cheese can be Mozzarella or Gorgonzola. A (pizza) topping can be Cheese, Tomatoes, or Mushrooms, but Cheese values require the particular sort of cheese, e.g. Cheese Gorgonzola.

Some kinds of data can also be described in more detail by several other data values. For example, the meal value Pizza requires the specification of diameter, spiced, and topping. An example instance of this type of value is:

Pizza (Large, False, Cheese Mozzarella)

The data type satisfaction demonstrates recursion. A restaurant guest's satisfaction might be Low, High, Very High, Very (Very Low), etc.

domain is a special typename and tells AIFAD what values should be used as input to your problem, whereas codomain specifies the output. This example obviously sets up the specification of how to predict a restaurant guest's satisfaction given the meal.

Note that if specifications do not make sense (e.g. if types cannot be reached, violate liveness properties, etc.), then they are currently pruned down to the largest set of type equations that is still reasonable. AIFAD currently does not yet provide good error messages to help users improve their specifications, but for most applications this should not be much of a concern.

Lexical conventions1

The following characters are considered blanks: space, newline, horizontal tabulation, carriage return, line feed and form feed. Blanks are ignored, but they separate adjacent identifiers, literals and keywords that would otherwise be confused as one single identifier, literal or keyword.

Comments in specifications start with a hash # and are valid up to the end of the current line.

Identifiers are sequences of letters, digits, _ (the underscore character), and ' (the single quote), starting with a letter or an underscore. Letters contain at least the 52 lowercase and uppercase letters from the ASCII set. The current implementation (except on MacOS) also recognizes as letters all accented characters from the ISO 8859-1 (ISO Latin 1) set. All characters in an identifier are meaningful. The current implementation places no limits on the number of characters of an identifier.

Type names are identifiers, but start with either a lowercase character or an underscore _. Data constructors are identifiers, but always start with uppercase characters. The only keywords are domain and codomain.


Here is the EBNF-grammar of type definitions, of which you can have almost arbitrarily many in your specification:

type-definition ::= type-name '=' rhs '.'
rhs             ::= sum { '|' sum }* | type
sum             ::= data-constructor | data-constructor type
type            ::= type-name | product
product         ::= '(' type { '*' type }+ ')'

Types can only be defined once. Data constructors may appear only once at each right-hand side, but may be reused in other definitions. You will have to name one of your types domain, which defines the shape of your input data, and another type codomain to indicate the form of your output data.

Data Files

Data files take the extension .add. Here is an example for a data file used for learning models (file examples/test.add in the distribution):

WienerSchnitzel Large -> High.
WienerSchnitzel Small -> Low.
Pizza (Large, True, Cheese Mozzarella) -> Very High.
Pizza (Large, False, Cheese Gorgonzola) -> Very (Very High).
Pizza (Small, True, Cheese Mozzarella) -> High.
Pizza (Small, False, Cheese Gorgonzola) -> Very High.
TapirSoup False -> Very Low.
TapirSoup True -> Very Low.
TapirSoup True -> Very High.

Such files follow the same lexical conventions as data specifications.

There are three kinds of data files:

  1. Files containing mappings from input values to output values used for training (see example above).
  2. Data files containing only input values.
  3. Data files containing only output values.

Depending on the operation you want to perform, one or several of the above formats are valid.


Here is the EBNF-grammar of samples as used in data files containing mappings from input to output values:

sample        ::= data '->' data '.'
data          ::= sum-value | product-value
sum-value     ::= data-constructor | data-constructor argument
argument      ::= data-constructor
                | '(' data-constructor argument ')'
                | product-value
product-value ::= '(' data { ',' data }+ ')'

Files that contain only input or output data do not contain samples but data followed by a dot.

C4.5-compatible Data

AIFAD can handle data in C4.5-format. Data specifications of this kind are stored in files having the extension .names and related data in files having the extension .data. You can find an example for this data format in the files c45.names and in the examples directory in the distribution.

The .names-file contains in its first line a comma-separated list of class values terminated by a dot. Each following line starts with the name of an attribute followed by a colon and again a comma-separated list of attribute values terminated by a dot. Instead of this list, the keyword "continuous" may be used to indicate numerical data. C4.5 can also handle continuous attributes, which are currently ignored by AIFAD. This feature may be added some time in the future. AIFAD will, however, make use of all of the discrete data available.

Data files in C4.5-format consist of comma-separated lists of data stored linewise, which must match the order and contents of the attributes specified in the corresponding .names-file. The class values are contained in the last column of these comma-separated lists.

Learning from Data

Using AIFAD on the command-line, the learning mode is turned on by the flag -learn. In this case you will also have to provide a name for the specification of the data. This can be done in two ways:

  1. Using the -spec flag, which takes the filename of the specification but does not set a name for the data file (default: stdin).

  2. Using the -stem flag, which expects a filestem and sets both the name of the specification and the data appropriately. E.g. -stem foo would set a specification file and a data file foo.add for standard AIFAD data. When using C4.5 data, the names would be foo.names and respectively. C4.5 mode can be indicated with the flag -c45 on the command-line.


The following command learns standard AIFAD data, the specification being in file while the data is being read via stdin from file bar.add:

aifad -learn -spec < bar.add

The next command learns specification and data foo.add given a stem:

aifad -learn -stem foo

The following command learns specification foo.names and given a stem (C4.5-format):

aifad -c45 -learn -stem foo

By default the system will learn a model and print it in a human-readable format to stdout. The model complexity, i.e. the number of bits consumed from input data to output one bit of information, is printed to stderr. If -no-hmod is specified, no human-readable model will be printed.

If you also want to store the learned model in a machine-readable format for later use (application), then you will have to specify a name for the model file using the -model flag, e.g.:

aifad -c45 -learn -stem foo -model mymodel.c45model

Note that C4.5-models and ones for standard AIFAD specifications are not compatible. AIFAD makes sure that you do not accidentally apply some model to the wrong data.


Models are printed directly in the OCaml-language. They are represented by a function model, which maps the tuple (or single attribute) of input to the corresponding output. Variables that are unused are unnamed, i.e. written as underscore _. The data constructors are represented by so-called polymorphic variants so that there is no need for an explicit data specification. The human-readable model file should actually be perfectly valid OCaml.

Input data is matched in match-clauses so as to discriminate between different cases. As soon as the result is clear to the learning algorithm, constructors of the output specification will be used to construct a result. If the result is only partially known, let-bindings will factor out the already predictable part, and more deeply nested matches predict the rest.

When no other actions are mentioned on the command-line except for the machine-readable model, the model will be printed in human-readable form on stdout, e.g.:

aifad -model mymodel.c45model

Learning Parameters

Variable selection

Currently there is only one hardly different alternative to using the gain ratio criterion, namely the one used by Quinlan in C4.5. This criterion can be turned on using the flag -gain-c45. It incorporates an additional constraint that selects also on basis of the unscaled gains. See 2 for details.


There is a currently still rather crude but quite effective and efficient pre-pruning technique, which is turned on with -with-min-gr. It stops growing decision-trees during learning in a branch when the number of bits required to select a variable for splitting exceeds the number of bits gained by this step. This effectively sets a minimum gain ratio at each selection.

Different entropy measures

You can choose -indep-entropy when you assume that tuples (including ones in substructures) are independent of each other. This is faster than the default, which assumes dependence.

Choose -shallow-entropy if you want to compute the entropy without descending into structures. This is much faster than the default, which does so, especially for deeply nested data structures.

Most frequent values

When no more splitting is possible or wanted, the most frequent value has to be computed from the available data. By setting -indep-most-freq, you can choose to assume independence of tuple elements in the data, the default assumes dependence again.

Splitting null branches

When splitting data depending on some variable, it can happen that one branch of the tree does not have any data for further learning (i.e. it is a null branch). Normally, the most frequent value of the previous set is then taken as leaf. By setting -split-null, the learning process may continue using the remaining variables and last dataset. Sometimes this hardly makes any difference in efficiency, sometimes it can lead to extremely long learning times and excessive model size.

Though the learning time is generally polynomial in the size of the dataset, this flag can make the time complexity almost exponential in the beginning, even for flat data structures. When using structured data, time complexity is currently indeed exponential then, though this problem might be solved in a future release using very complicated models that employ CPS (continuation-passing style).

At the moment we do not have empirical evidence that this experimental feature significantly improves learning, but there is still some experimentation left to be done.

Random models

There is an experimental feature which allows you to generate additional random models that are constructed such that at each split a variable is chosen from a distribution built from the gain ratios. This can be turned on with the flag -n-rand-gain, which expects the number of additional random models to generate as argument. Another parameter -t-rand-gain can be used to set the total number of seconds (floating point) that may be spent learning in this case. Whichever limit is reached first (time limit or number of models) will determine the end of learning.

The models are necessarily equally accurate in-sample, but they may differ in complexity: the latter is taken as decision criterion on which model to choose (minimum complexity). This seems quite interesting from an empirical point of view, but needs further investigation.

Handling missing values in C4.5-data

Samples containing missing values in their codomain are ignored. For input data there are four strategies for handling missing values (indicated by ? in the data):

  1. Ignore samples containing missing values. Turned on by -mv-ignore. This is recommended if you are absolutely sure that missing values cannot occur, because it improves efficiency of learning, model size and efficiency of application.

  2. Predict the most probable (frequent) value when a missing-value is present in a sample. Turned on by -mv-mprob. When learning such models, the algebraic encoding of input data is either None or Some data, where data is a tuple of all variables in the C4.5-specification.

  3. Add another constructor to encode missing values ("flat representation"). Turned on by -mv-flat.

  4. Algebraically encode the data by lifting constructors such that they are either None if some value is missing in an attribute or Some value if it is present. This is the default (-mv-lift-all).

Factorization of models

Models are always constructed in such a way that matches are only performed when some information (also from substructures) is really needed. It can, however, happen that it is only determinable after learning some subtree that some partial predictions can already be made before the match. By default, models will also be simplified in this respect by using let-bindings that factor out common information from subbranches. You can prohibit this feature by passing -no-factor. There is hardly any performance penalty for factorization so you will usually be happy with the default.

Applying Models

If you have a machine-readable model file, you can apply it to input data. There is a certain degree of flexibility here: you can apply a model either to samples, i.e. mappings from input to output data, or to input data only - even mixed! In the case of mappings the output part in the data will be ignore. The input is read from standard input, the resulting predictions of the model application will be printed in the corresponding format (standard AIFAD or C4.5) to stdout or to a file whose name is passed to the flag -pred. For example:

aifad -apply -model mymodel.c45model < -pred

There is no need here to specify the type of model (C4.5), because the latter knows what it is.

Evaluating Results

To evaluate the accuracy of some model application, we compare its result to reference data. The file containing the reference data is specified by -eval, the data to be evaluated is read from stdin. You will also have to supply a data specification by either using -spec or -stem. The result of the comparison consists of various statistics:

  • Number of samples
  • Number of bits required to encode the whole data
  • Average number of bits per sample
  • Number of common bits shared by both data sources (reference and predictions)
  • Average number of common bits per sample shared by both data sources
  • Accuracy, i.e. percentage of common bits

Example application:

aifad -spec foo.spec -model mymodel.model -eval <

Model Complexity

After learning, the model complexity is printed to stderr. It is a dimensionless measure that tells how many bits of input are needed in average to produce one bit of output. Note that this is completely unrelated to the accuracy of the model!

Random Data Generation

For testing purposes it is often very helpful to generate random data given some specification. You might want to try this out with the specification in the examples-directory of the distribution. As usual, you will have to use the -c45 flag if you want C4.5-data.

The following generates ten random samples on stdout for a standard AIFAD specification

aifad -rand-gen 10 -spec

If you do not want to generate data for the target variable(s), use this instead:

aifad -rand-gen-no-target 10 -spec

You can even simulate the presence of missing values by setting their probability (default: 0.01):

aifad -rand-gen 10 -rand-mv-prob 0.05 -spec

If you want to pass a certain seed to the random number generator, use -rand-init. By using -rand-self-init, it will be initialized at startup in a system-dependent way.

Contact Information and Contributing

Since there are hardly any real world data sets that exploit the advanced data representation features provided by AIFAD, I would be very grateful to hear about success stories, especially what concerns improved accuracy and model complexity over less expressive representations.

In the case of bugs, feature requests, contributions and similar, you can contact me here:

Up-to-date information concerning this tool should be available at:


Markus Mottl in Rutherford, NJ on June 28, 2012

  1. Some equivalent definitions copied from the OCaml-manual. 

  2. J. R. Quinlan. Induction of decision trees. In Jude W. Shavlik and Thomas G. Dietterich, editors, Readings in Machine Learning. Morgan Kaufmann, 1990. Originally published in Machine Learning 1:81-106, 1986. 

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