Clustering with t-SNE, provably

George C. Linderman, Stefan Steinerberger

t-distributed Stochastic Neighborhood Embedding (t-SNE), a clustering and visualization method proposed by van der Maaten & Hinton in 2008, has rapidly become a standard tool in a number of natural sciences. Despite its overwhelming success, there is a distinct lack of mathematical foundations and the inner workings of the algorithm are not well understood. The purpose of this paper is to prove that t-SNE is able to recover well-separated clusters; more precisely, we prove that t-SNE in the `early exaggeration' phase, an optimization technique proposed by van der Maaten & Hinton (2008) and van der Maaten (2014), can be rigorously analyzed. As a byproduct, the proof suggests novel ways for setting the exaggeration parameter $\alpha$ and step size $h$. Numerical examples illustrate the effectiveness of these rules: in particular, the quality of embedding of topological structures (e.g. the swiss roll) improves. We also discuss a connection to spectral clustering methods.

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