I want to model a process that is a function of time, $X(t)$. I have a data set which corresponds to a coarse sampling of the function values $X$ at different time points, $t_1, t_2, ...$. I have a analytic-derived model for the derivative $\frac{dX}{dt}$ = $F(X(t),G(t))$ which has a couple tunable parameters in the (known) functions $F$ and $G$. I've been able to tune these models with the following process:

  1. Chose a set of parameters for the functions $F$ and $G$.
  2. Do a forward-Euler method from the earliest time in my data set to the ending point in my data set, generating the $X(t)$ which corresponds to the above parameters in $F$ and $G$.
  3. Use this $X(t)$, along with my measured data points to generate a model error.
  4. Use the above modeled error to go back to (1), iterating and doing an optimization over the parameters in the expression for $\frac{dX}{dt}$ to minimize the error.

Note that in the above I have to deal with the function itself and not the derivative because my measured data is on a coarser time grid than the derivative needs to be computed. For example, my derivative changes meaningfully on a scale of $\Delta t$, but my data set might only have points every $5\Delta t$ to $10 \Delta t$. I cannot take the function values themselves from the data set and create a derivative myself because of this discrepancy in the time scales.

Now this process works pretty well, and I'm able to achieve a pretty good error. However, I'm wondering if there's a better way to model the derivative $\frac{dX}{dt}$ than this analytic model. For example, would a neural network or a regression tree be able to do a better job?

My question is, how would I do this in a computationally efficient way? Let's take a neural network as an example. I'm used to having inputs and their associated outputs when training a NN with standard packages. But the problem is, if I want to model the derivative, I don't have the derivative as an output to train on. I only know the function values and have only been able to compute a error to minimize on through the forward Euler integration. Of course I could treat the NN parameters as I did with the parameters above, and do a brute force minimization on them, but I obviously lose a lot of the efficiency of backprop in doing so (or, if I was doing this with a decision tree, would lose the logic of how regression trees are normally optimized).

Is there a better way for me to do this? Are there methods that exist to handle this problem? If anyone could point me in a fruitful direction it would be much appreciated.


2 Answers 2


This is actually really easy to implement in any deep learning framework with automatic differentiation capability.

You need two neural networks. One to approximate the $X$, another to approximate the $dX/dt$.

  • The first step is easy. You have samples of input and target for $X$. Just follow the normal process to train you network to learn $X$
  • For the second step is that you don't have the target values (i.e. gradient) directly. The trick is that you already got an approximator for $X$ from the first step, so use that to get your target for the second network.

I am most familiar with pytorch, so I will use it as an example.

import torch
from torch.nn import Sequential, Linear, ReLU
from torch.autograd import Variable
from torch.optim import Adam
import numpy as np

x = np.linspace(0, 10, 101).reshape(-1, 1)
y = np.sin(x) # Using sin as an example

x = Variable(torch.Tensor(x), requires_grad=True) 
y = Variable(torch.Tensor(y), requires_grad=False)

f = Sequential(....) # Build f approximator
f_optimizer = Adam(f.parameters())

for epoch in range(1000):
    loss= f(x) - y

# Build grad approximator
f_grad = Sequential(....) 

# need a new optimizer to train f_grad
f_optimizer = Adam(f_grad.parameters()) 

for epoch in range(1000):
    # Directly backprop from the output to the gradient of the f
    loss= f_grad(x) - x.grad # x.grad is the grad of f w.r.t x

f_grad # this is the gradient function you are looking for

(I don't have a machine with pytorch install at the moment, so don't expect the code to run with some debugging)

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the reply, though I don't believe your answer is relevant to my situation. Your first step is for me to learn the function $X$, but that's not trivial to do. That's the reason why I'm approaching it from the derivative (which I have approximations for) and using numerical integration techniques to yield me an approximation for $X$. $X$ is a function of time, and $X(t+\Delta t)$ depends on $X(t)$ (and implicitly all time before that). So it's not trivial to build a feature set which will simply reproduce $X(t)$ at a given point using a regular old NN approach. $\endgroup$
    – gammapoint
    Nov 15, 2017 at 0:46
  • $\begingroup$ " I have a data set which corresponds to a coarse sampling of the function values X at different time points, t1,t2,...t1,t2,...." You said, you have a sample of X, t is your input variable. Why can't you use NN to learn X ? $\endgroup$
    – Louis T
    Nov 15, 2017 at 0:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Okay, I see, because $X$ is not a function of $t_i$ but the whole history $t_0 ... t_i$, is that correct ? $\endgroup$
    – Louis T
    Nov 15, 2017 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I have the function $X$ at some time points $t_1, t_2$, etc. But there is a lot of "action" that happens between $t_1$ and $t_2$. Imagine that $t_1$ is 1 week, and $t_2$ is a week later, but the process itself depends on more of a daily time step. Say we're modeling how much cereal you have in your kitchen. You eat an amount of cereal each morning which is proportional to the outside temperature (why that? I dunno, your business). So I need a value for $X(t)$ for every day, but it's hard to see how to construct that simply by knowing how much cereal you had at the beginning of the week $\endgroup$
    – gammapoint
    Nov 15, 2017 at 0:56
  • $\begingroup$ and at the end of the week? Does that make sense? So instead I use my approximation of how much you eat per day to build up the full $X(t)$ solution, by stepping forward through time with the derivative using a forward Euler integration. My current approximation of how much cereal you eat as a function of the outside temperature works pretty good, but I'd like to see if that function could be made more accurate by going to a black box ML algorithm like a NN or something. $\endgroup$
    – gammapoint
    Nov 15, 2017 at 0:56

Honestly, this does not sound like a machine learning problem. I can think of two approaches:

  • If you have an analytic model for $dX/dt$, you can integrate it over $t$ to obtain a model for $X$. Then find the parameters that minimize squared distance to the data (plus some regularization perhaps). A grid search might be sufficient.
  • Use standard methods of interpolating a function, such as spline interpolation. The advantage of this is that you get a smooth closed-form solution.

Please also keep in mind that the derivative for a finite set of points $X(t_1), X(t_2), ..., X(t_n)$ does not exist. There are infinitely many functions that pass through all points (and almost all of them are not differentiable). In other words: You have to make additional assumptions on the function that you are looking for. With the methods above, you make these assumptions explicitly, which I think is better than burying them deep inside a machine learning algorithm.


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