Date of Award

Spring 4-2016

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Machine Learning


Alexei A. Efros

Second Advisor

Abhinav Gupta


For both humans and machines, understanding the visual world requires relating new percepts with past experience. We argue that a good visual representation for an image should encode what makes it similar to other images, enabling the recall of associated experiences. Current machine implementations of visual representations can capture some aspects of similarity, but fall far short of human ability overall. Even if one explicitly labels objects in millions of images to tell the computer what should be considered similar—a very expensive procedure—the labels still do not capture everything that might be relevant. This thesis shows that one can often train a representation which captures similarity beyond what is labeled in a given dataset. That means we can begin with a dataset that has uninteresting labels, or no labels at all, and still build a useful representation. To do this, we propose to using pretext tasks: tasks that are not useful in and of themselves, but serve as an excuse to learn a more general-purpose representation. The labels for a pretext task can be inexpensive or even free. Furthermore, since this approach assumes training labels differ from the desired outputs, it can handle output spaces where the correct answer is ambiguous, and therefore impossible to annotate by hand. The thesis explores two broad classes of supervision. The first isweak image-level supervision, which is exploited to train mid-level discriminative patch classifiers. For example, given a dataset of street-level imagery labeled only with GPS coordinates, patch classifiers are trained to differentiate one specific geographical region (e.g. the city of Paris) from others. The resulting classifiers each automatically collect and associate a set of patches which all depict the same distinctive architectural element. In this way, we can learn to detect elements like balconies, signs, and lamps without annotations. The second type of supervision requires no information about images other than the pixels themselves. Instead, the algorithm is trained to predict the context around image patches. The context serves as a sort of weak label: to predict well, the algorithm must associate similar-looking patches which also have similar contexts. After training, the feature representation learned using this within-image context indeed captures visual similarity across images, which ultimately makes it useful for real tasks like object detection and geometry estimation.