A Weighted Nearest Neighbor Algorithm for Learning with Symbolic Features

Scott Cost, Steven Salzberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

450 Scopus citations


In the past, nearest neighbor algorithms for learning from examples have worked best in domains in which all features had numeric values. In such domains, the examples can be treated as points and distance metrics can use standard definitions. In symbolic domains, a more sophisticated treatment of the feature space is required. We introduce a nearest neighbor algorithm for learning in domains with symbolic features. Our algorithm calculates distance tables that allow it to produce real-valued distances between instances, and attaches weights to the instances to further modify the structure of feature space. We show that this technique produces excellent classification accuracy on three problems that have been studied by machine learning researchers: predicting protein secondary structure, identifying DNA promoter sequences, and pronouncing English text. Direct experimental comparisons with the other learning algorithms show that our nearest neighbor algorithm is comparable or superior in all three domains. In addition, our algorithm has advantages in training speed, simplicity, and perspicuity. We conclude that experimental evidence favors the use and continued development of nearest neighbor algorithms for domains such as the ones studied here.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)57-78
Number of pages22
JournalMachine Learning
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1993


  • Nearest neighbor
  • exemplar-based learning
  • instance-based learning
  • protein structure
  • text pronunciation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Software
  • Artificial Intelligence


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