A Theory of PAC Learnability of Partial Concept Classes

Noga Alon, Steve Hanneke, Ron Holzman, Shay Moran

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

12 Scopus citations


We extend the classical theory of PAC learning in a way which allows to model a rich variety of practical learning tasks where the data satisfy special properties that ease the learning process. For example, tasks where the distance of the data from the decision boundary is bounded away from zero, or tasks where the data lie on a lower dimensional surface. The basic and simple idea is to consider partial concepts: these are functions that can be undefined on certain parts of the space. When learning a partial concept, we assume that the source distribution is supported only on points where the partial concept is defined. This way, one can naturally express assumptions on the data such as lying on a lower dimensional surface, or that it satisfies margin conditions. In contrast, it is not at all clear that such assumptions can be expressed by the traditional PAC theory using learnable total concept classes, and in fact we exhibit easy-to-learn partial concept classes which provably cannot be captured by the traditional PAC theory. This also resolves, in a strong negative sense, a question posed by Attias, Kontorovich, and Mansour (2019). We characterize PAC learnability of partial concept classes and reveal an algorithmic landscape which is fundamentally different than the classical one. For example, in the classical PAC model, learning boils down to Empirical Risk Minimization (ERM). This basic principle follows from Uniform Convergence and the Fundamental Theorem of PAC Learning (Vapnik and Chervonenkis, 1971, 1974b; Blumer, Ehrenfeucht, Haussler, and Warmuth, 1989; Hodges, 1993). In stark contrast, we show that the ERM principle fails spectacularly in explaining learnability of partial concept classes. In fact, we demonstrate classes that are incredibly easy to learn, but such that any algorithm that learns them must use an hypothesis space with unbounded VC dimension. We also find that the sample compression conjecture of Littlestone and Warmuth fails in this setting. Our impossibility results hinge on the recent breakthroughs in communication complexity and graph theory by Göös (2015); Ben-David, Hatami, and Tal (2017); Balodis, Ben-David, Göös, Jain, and Kothari (2021). Thus, this theory features problems that cannot be represented in the traditional way and cannot be solved in the traditional way. We view this as evidence that it might provide insights on the nature of learnability in realistic scenarios which the classical theory fails to explain. We include in the paper suggestions for future research and open problems in several contexts, including combinatorics, geometry, and learning theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationProceedings - 2021 IEEE 62nd Annual Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science, FOCS 2021
PublisherIEEE Computer Society
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781665420556
StatePublished - 2022
Event62nd IEEE Annual Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science, FOCS 2021 - Virtual, Online, United States
Duration: Feb 7 2022Feb 10 2022

Publication series

NameProceedings - Annual IEEE Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science, FOCS
ISSN (Print)0272-5428


Conference62nd IEEE Annual Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science, FOCS 2021
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityVirtual, Online

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Computer Science


  • Empirical Risk Minimization
  • Learnability
  • Margin
  • Online Learning
  • PAC Learning
  • VC Dimension


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