A Gentle Introduction to Conformal Prediction and Distribution-Free Uncertainty Quantification

15 Jul 2021  ·  Anastasios N. Angelopoulos, Stephen Bates ·

Black-box machine learning models are now routinely used in high-risk settings, like medical diagnostics, which demand uncertainty quantification to avoid consequential model failures. Conformal prediction is a user-friendly paradigm for creating statistically rigorous uncertainty sets/intervals for the predictions of such models. Critically, the sets are valid in a distribution-free sense: they possess explicit, non-asymptotic guarantees even without distributional assumptions or model assumptions. One can use conformal prediction with any pre-trained model, such as a neural network, to produce sets that are guaranteed to contain the ground truth with a user-specified probability, such as 90%. It is easy-to-understand, easy-to-use, and general, applying naturally to problems arising in the fields of computer vision, natural language processing, deep reinforcement learning, and so on. This hands-on introduction is aimed to provide the reader a working understanding of conformal prediction and related distribution-free uncertainty quantification techniques with one self-contained document. We lead the reader through practical theory for and examples of conformal prediction and describe its extensions to complex machine learning tasks involving structured outputs, distribution shift, time-series, outliers, models that abstain, and more. Throughout, there are many explanatory illustrations, examples, and code samples in Python. With each code sample comes a Jupyter notebook implementing the method on a real-data example; the notebooks can be accessed and easily run using our codebase.

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