In operator theory, a branch of mathematics, a positive-definite kernel is a generalization of a positive-definite function or a positive-definite matrix. It was first introduced by James Mercer in the early 20th century, in the context of solving integral operator equations. Since then, positive-definite functions and their various analogues and generalizations have arisen in diverse parts of mathematics. They occur naturally in Fourier analysis, probability theory, operator theory, complex function-theory, moment problems, integral equations, boundary-value problems for partial differential equations, machine learning, embedding problem, information theory, and other areas.
Let be a nonempty set, sometimes referred to as the index set. A symmetric function is called a positive-definite (p.d.) kernel on if
holds for any , given .
In probability theory, a distinction is sometimes made between positive-definite kernels, for which equality in (1.1) implies , and positive semi-definite (p.s.d.) kernels, which do not impose this condition. Note that this is equivalent to requiring that any finite matrix constructed by pairwise evaluation, , has either entirely positive (p.d.) or nonnegative (p.s.d.) eigenvalues.
In mathematical literature, kernels are usually complex valued functions, but in this article we assume real-valued functions, which is the common practice in applications of p.d. kernels.
Some general properties
- For a family of p.d. kernels
- The conical sum is p.d., given
- The product is p.d., given
- The limit is p.d. if the limit exists.
- If is a sequence of sets, and a sequence of p.d. kernels, then both andare p.d. kernels on .
- Let . Then the restriction of to is also a p.d. kernel.
Examples of p.d. kernels
- Common examples of p.d. kernels defined on Euclidean space include:
- If is a Hilbert space, then its corresponding inner product is a p.d. kernel. Indeed, we have
- Kernels defined on and histograms: Histograms are frequently encountered in applications of real-life problems. Most observations are usually available under the form of nonnegative vectors of counts, which, if normalized, yield histograms of frequencies. It has been shown  that the following family of squared metrics, respectively Jensen divergence, the -square, Total Variation, and two variations of the Hellinger distance:can be used to define p.d. kernels using the following formula
Positive-definite kernels, as defined in (1.1), appeared first in 1909 in a paper on integral equations by James Mercer. Several other authors made use of this concept in the following two decades, but none of them explicitly used kernels , i.e. p.d. functions (indeed M. Mathias and S. Bochner seem not to have been aware of the study of p.d. kernels). Mercer’s work arose from Hilbert’s paper of 1904  on Fredholm integral equations of the second kind:
In particular, Hilbert had shown that
where is a continuous real symmetric kernel, is continuous, is a complete system of orthonormal eigenfunctions, and ’s are the corresponding eigenvalues of (1.2). Hilbert defined a “definite” kernel as one for which the double integral
At about the same time W. H. Young, motivated by a different question in the theory of integral equations, showed that for continuous kernels condition (1.1) is equivalent to for all .
E.H. Moore  initiated the study of a very general kind of p.d. kernel. If is an abstract set, he calls functions defined on “positive Hermitian matrices” if they satisfy (1.1) for all . Moore was interested in generalization of integral equations and showed that to each such there is a Hilbert space of functions such that, for each . This property is called the reproducing property of the kernel and turns out to have importance in the solution of boundary-value problems for elliptic partial differential equations.
Another line of development in which p.d. kernels played a large role was the theory of harmonics on homogeneous spaces as begun by E. Cartan in 1929, and continued by H. Weyl and S. Ito. The most comprehensive theory of p.d. kernels in homogeneous spaces is that of M. Krein which includes as special cases the work on p.d. functions and irreducible unitary representations of locally compact groups.
In probability theory, p.d. kernels arise as covariance kernels of stochastic processes.
Connection with reproducing kernel Hilbert spaces and feature maps
Positive-definite kernels provide a framework that encompasses some basic Hilbert space constructions. In the following we present a tight relationship between positive-definite kernels and two mathematical objects, namely reproducing Hilbert spaces and feature maps.
Let be a set, a Hilbert space of functions , and the corresponding inner product on . For any the evaluation functional is defined by . We first define a reproducing kernel Hilbert space (RKHS):
Definition: Space is called a reproducing kernel Hilbert space if the evaluation functionals are continuous.
Every RKHS has a special function associated to it, namely the reproducing kernel:
Definition: Reproducing kernel is a function such that
- , and
- , for all and .
The latter property is called the reproducing property.
The following result shows equivalence between RKHS and reproducing kernels:
Theorem — Every reproducing kernel induces a unique RKHS, and every RKHS has a unique reproducing kernel.
Now the connection between positive definite kernels and RKHS is given by the following theorem
Theorem — Every reproducing kernel is positive-definite, and every positive definite kernel defines a unique RKHS, of which it is the unique reproducing kernel.
Thus, given a positive-definite kernel , it is possible to build an associated RKHS with as a reproducing kernel.
As stated earlier, positive definite kernels can be constructed from inner products. This fact can be used to connect p.d. kernels with another interesting object that arises in machine learning applications, namely the feature map. Let be a Hilbert space, and the corresponding inner product. Any map is called a feature map. In this case we call the feature space. It is easy to see  that every feature map defines a unique p.d. kernel by
Kernels and distances
Kernel methods are often compared to distance based methods such as nearest neighbors. In this section we discuss parallels between their two respective ingredients, namely kernels and distances .
Here by a distance function between each pair of elements of some set , we mean a metric defined on that set, i.e. any nonnegative-valued function on which satisfies
- , and if and only if ,
One link between distances and p.d. kernels is given by a particular kind of kernel, called a negative definite kernel, and defined as follows
Definition: A symmetric function is called a negative definite (n.d.) kernel on if
holds for any and such that .
The parallel between n.d. kernels and distances is in the following: whenever a n.d. kernel vanishes on the set , and is zero only on this set, then its square root is a distance for . At the same time each distance does not correspond necessarily to a n.d. kernel. This is only true for Hilbertian distances, where distance is called Hilbertian if one can embed the metric space isometrically into some Hilbert space.
On the other hand, n.d. kernels can be identified with a subfamily of p.d. kernels known as infinitely divisible kernels. A nonnegative-valued kernel is said to be infinitely divisible if for every there exists a positive-definite kernel such that .
Another link is that a p.d. kernel induces a pseudometric, where the first constraint on the distance function is loosened to allow for . Given a positive-definite kernel , we can define a distance function as:
Kernels in machine learning
Positive-definite kernels, through their equivalence with reproducing kernel Hilbert spaces, are particularly important in the field of statistical learning theory because of the celebrated representer theorem which states that every minimizer function in an RKHS can be written as a linear combination of the kernel function evaluated at the training points. This is a practically useful result as it effectively simplifies the empirical risk minimization problem from an infinite dimensional to a finite dimensional optimization problem.
Kernels in probabilistic models
There are several different ways in which kernels arise in probability theory.
- Nondeterministic recovery problems: Assume that we want to find the response of an unknown model function at a new point of a set , provided that we have a sample of input-response pairs given by observation or experiment. The response at is not a fixed function of but rather a realization of a real-valued random variable . The goal is to get information about the function which replaces in the deterministic setting. For two elements the random variables and will not be uncorrelated, because if is too close to the random experiments described by and will often show similar behaviour. This is described by a covariance kernel . Such a kernel exists and is positive-definite under weak additional assumptions. Now a good estimate for can be obtained by using kernel interpolation with the covariance kernel, ignoring the probabilistic background completely.
Assume now that a noise variable , with zero mean and variance , is added to , such that the noise is independent for different and independent of there, then the problem of finding a good estimate for is identical to the above one, but with a modified kernel given by .
- Density estimation by kernels: The problem is to recover the density of a multivariate distribution over a domain , from a large sample including repetitions. Where sampling points lie dense, the true density function must take large values. A simple density estimate is possible by counting the number of samples in each cell of a grid, and plotting the resulting histogram, which yields a piecewise constant density estimate. A better estimate can be obtained by using a nonnegative translation invariant kernel , with total integral equal to one, and define as a smooth estimate.
Numerical solution of partial differential equations
One of the greatest application areas of so-called meshfree methods is in the numerical solution of PDEs. Some of the popular meshfree methods are closely related to positive-definite kernels (such as meshless local Petrov Galerkin (MLPG), Reproducing kernel particle method (RKPM) and smoothed-particle hydrodynamics (SPH)). These methods use radial basis kernel for collocation.
Stinespring dilation theorem
In the literature on computer experiments  and other engineering experiments, one increasingly encounters models based on p.d. kernels, RBFs or kriging. One such topic is response surface methodology. Other types of applications that boil down to data fitting are rapid prototyping and computer graphics. Here one often uses implicit surface models to approximate or interpolate point cloud data.
Applications of p.d. kernels in various other branches of mathematics are in multivariate integration, multivariate optimization, and in numerical analysis and scientific computing, where one studies fast, accurate and adaptive algorithms ideally implemented in high-performance computing environments.
- Covariance function
- Integral equation
- Integral transform
- Positive-definite function on a group
- Reproducing kernel Hilbert space
- Kernel method
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