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What is a support vector machine?

by Stephen M. Walker II, Co-Founder / CEO

What are SVM Support Vectors?

Support Vector Machine (SVM) is a supervised machine learning algorithm primarily used for classification and regression analysis. The "support vectors" in SVM are the data points that lie closest to the decision surface (or hyperplane). These points are more difficult to classify and are instrumental in defining the dividing line or margin between different classes in the dataset. Essentially, support vectors are the coordinates that help the SVM algorithm draw the hyperplane and maximize the margin between classes, which in turn enhances the model's predictive accuracy.

What is a support vector machine?

Support vector machines (SVMs) are a set of supervised learning methods used for classification, regression, and outliers detection. Here are the key concepts:

  • Classification: SVMs can classify data into two or more classes. The algorithm outputs an optimal hyperplane that categorizes new examples.

  • Hyperplane: In SVM, a hyperplane is a decision boundary that separates different classes in the feature space. In two dimensions, this hyperplane is a line, but it can be a plane or a higher-dimensional construct in more complex spaces.

  • Support Vectors: These are the data points that are closest to the hyperplane and influence its position and orientation. SVMs are named after these points because they "support" the hyperplane.

  • Margin: It's the distance between the hyperplane and the nearest data point from either set. SVMs aim to maximize this margin to increase the model's robustness.

  • Kernel Trick: SVMs can perform a non-linear classification using what's called the kernel trick, which implicitly maps their inputs into high-dimensional feature spaces.

  • Soft Margin: To allow some misclassification and handle non-linearly separable data, SVMs can be equipped with a soft margin, which allows some points to be on the incorrect side of the hyperplane.

SVMs are powerful for datasets that have a clear margin of separation with high dimensionality. They are less effective on very large datasets or datasets with a lot of noise (i.e., overlapping classes).

The support vector machine algorithm is based on the concept of finding a hyperplane that best separates a dataset into two classes. The hyperplane is defined by a set of support vectors, which are the points in the dataset that are closest to the hyperplane. The distance between the hyperplane and the support vectors is called the margin. The goal of the support vector machine algorithm is to find a hyperplane with the largest possible margin.

The support vector machine algorithm has a number of advantages over other supervised learning algorithms. First, it is highly scalable, meaning that it can be trained on large datasets. Second, it is resistant to overfitting, meaning that it can generalize well to new examples. Finally, the algorithm is relatively easy to implement and understand.

What are the advantages of support vector machines?

Support vector machines (SVMs) offer several advantages in the realm of machine learning:

  • Effective in High-Dimensional Spaces: SVMs work well in spaces with a high number of dimensions (features), even when the number of dimensions exceeds the number of samples.

  • Memory Efficient: They use a subset of training points in the decision function (support vectors), which makes them memory efficient.

  • Versatility: The ability to use different kernel functions allows SVMs to be adaptable. This means they can handle linear and non-linear relationships between data points by choosing the appropriate kernel.

  • Robustness: SVMs are known for their robustness, especially in cases where there is a clear margin of separation between classes.

  • Generalization: Due to the principle of the structural risk minimization, SVMs are less prone to overfitting, especially when choosing the right regularization parameters.

  • Optimization: The SVM training always finds a global minimum, as the optimization is convex. This is an advantage over neural networks, which can get stuck in local minima.

However, it's important to note that SVMs also have their disadvantages, such as being less effective on very large datasets due to their computational complexity, and they require careful preprocessing of data and tuning of hyperparameters. They can also perform poorly when the data has a significant amount of noise or overlapping classes.

What are the disadvantages of support vector machines?

Support vector machines (SVMs) have some disadvantages that can limit their effectiveness in certain situations:

  • Computational Complexity: Training an SVM can be computationally intensive, especially with large datasets, which makes it less suitable for scenarios where real-time prediction is required.

  • Sensitive to Parameter Tuning: SVMs have hyperparameters like the regularization parameter (C) and the kernel parameters that need careful tuning to achieve the best performance. This process can be time-consuming and requires expertise.

  • Kernel Selection: Choosing the right kernel function is critical, and the wrong choice can lead to poor performance. There is no one-size-fits-all kernel, and domain knowledge is often required to select an appropriate one.

  • Limited Scalability: Due to their quadratic complexity in the number of samples, SVMs are not the best choice for datasets with millions of samples.

  • Performance with Overlapping Classes: SVMs may not perform well when the classes in the dataset overlap significantly.

  • Data Preprocessing: SVMs are sensitive to the feature scaling, so proper data normalization is required before training.

  • No Probabilistic Explanation: SVMs do not directly provide probability estimates for predictions, which are often desirable. These can be calculated using an expensive five-fold cross-validation method.

Understanding these disadvantages is crucial for determining when SVMs are an appropriate tool for a given machine learning problem.

How do support vector machines work?

Support Vector Machines (SVMs) are a set of supervised learning methods used for classification, regression, and outliers detection. The basic principle behind SVM is to find a hyperplane that best divides a dataset into classes.

Working Principle of SVM:

  1. Classification: The goal of SVM in classification is to find the optimal hyperplane that separates the data into different classes. The hyperplane is chosen in such a way that it has the maximum margin, which is the maximum distance between data points of both classes.

  2. Support Vectors: Data points that are closest to the hyperplane and influence its position and orientation are known as support vectors. These are the data points that the margin pushes up against.

  3. Margin: It's a gap between the two lines on the closest data points of different classes. It can be considered as a separation street. The wider the street, the better it is for the model's ability to generalize well.

  4. Hyperplane: In a two-dimensional space, this is a line that linearly separates and classifies a set of data. In higher-dimensional spaces, it's a plane that separates the data points into classes.

  5. Kernel Trick: When data is not linearly separable, SVM can be equipped with a kernel function allowing it to solve non-linear classification problems. The kernel function transforms the data into a higher dimension where it is possible to find a hyperplane for separation.

  6. Regularization Parameter: The regularization parameter (often denoted by C) tells the SVM optimization how much you want to avoid misclassifying each training example. For large values of C, the optimization will choose a smaller-margin hyperplane if that hyperplane does a better job at getting all the training points classified correctly.

  7. Solving Optimization Problems: The SVM algorithm involves solving an optimization problem to find the hyperplane that maximizes the margin. This is typically done using quadratic programming.


  • SVMs find the hyperplane that best separates the classes in the feature space.
  • Support vectors are the critical elements of the training set that the margin pushes against.
  • The margin is maximized to increase the model's generalization ability.
  • Kernel functions allow SVMs to work with non-linearly separable data.
  • The regularization parameter balances the trade-off between achieving a low training error and a low testing error (high generalization capability).

SVMs are powerful for datasets that have a clear margin of separation with high dimensional space. They are less effective on very large datasets because of the growing amount of time required to classify the data.

What are some applications of support vector machines?

Support vector machines (SVMs) have become a versatile machine learning algorithm used across many fields. In computer vision, SVMs are adept at image classification tasks like facial recognition. For natural language processing, they enable text categorization and sentiment analysis. SVMs are also used in bioinformatics for protein and gene classification as well as in finance for market forecasting and algorithmic trading. Their applications extend to handwriting recognition for mail sorting, medical diagnosis for disease detection, and speech recognition for digital assistants. SVMs even assist in geological analysis, environmental conservation efforts, and autonomous driving systems. With their robust classification capabilities, SVMs transform diverse data into actionable insights applied broadly in science, technology, business, and daily life.

  1. Image Classification: SVMs can classify images with high accuracy. They are used in handwriting recognition, face detection, and bioinformatics, among other applications.

  2. Text and Hypertext Categorization: SVM algorithms can perform text categorization for tasks like spam detection, topic identification, and sentiment analysis. Their application in hypertext categorization includes categorizing web pages and other content-related tasks.

  3. Bioinformatics: In bioinformatics, SVMs are used for protein classification, cancer classification, and gene expression data analysis. They are particularly useful for problems with many features (high-dimensional space) and relatively small sample sizes.

  4. Stock Market Analysis: SVMs can be used to predict company growth, stock market trends, and other economic trends by analyzing historical data.

  5. Handwriting Recognition: SVMs are used to recognize handwritten characters and digits. They are instrumental in postal automation services for sorting mail by reading zip codes and addresses.

  6. Generalized Predictive Control (GPC): SVMs are used in control systems for nonlinear modeling and prediction, which is essential in process control and robotics.

  7. Medical Diagnosis: SVMs can help in the classification of diseases by analyzing medical records and imaging data, such as diagnosing cancer based on cell images.

  8. Protein Structure Prediction: SVMs are used to predict the secondary or tertiary structure of proteins from their primary sequence.

  9. Anomaly Detection: They can be used to detect outliers or unusual data points in various applications, from fraud detection in credit card transactions to fault detection in manufacturing.

  10. Geological and Environmental Sciences: SVMs help in the classification of minerals and prediction of geological formations. They are also used in the modeling of environmental data and to predict pollution patterns.

  11. Speech Recognition: SVMs are applied in speech recognition technology, where they classify voice data into text or commands.

These are just a few examples of the wide range of applications for SVMs. Their ability to handle high-dimensional data and perform well with a clear margin of separation makes them suitable for many complex classification tasks.

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