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What is Gradient Descent in Machine Learning?

Discover the powerful optimization technique that has revolutionized machine learning - gradient descent! Learn how this algorithm helps your models converge to the perfect solution with precision and speed.

Updated October 15, 2023

Gradient Descent: The Backbone of Machine Learning

Gradient descent is a fundamental algorithm in machine learning that allows us to train models efficiently and accurately. It’s a crucial component of many popular algorithms, including neural networks and logistic regression. In this article, we’ll delve into the concept of gradient descent, its history, and how it’s used in practice.

What is Gradient Descent?

Gradient descent is an optimization algorithm that aims to find the optimal values for the parameters of a model by minimizing a loss function. It does this by iteratively adjusting the parameters in the direction of the negative gradient of the loss function. In other words, it moves down the surface of the loss function towards the minimum point.

The gradient of a function is a vector of its partial derivatives with respect to one or more input variables. In the context of machine learning, we use the gradient to find the direction of the steepest descent, which leads us to the optimal parameters for our model.

History of Gradient Descent

Gradient descent has a rich history dating back to the early 20th century. The concept of gradient descent was first introduced by Cauchy in the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the first practical algorithms were developed. In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers like Marrian and Kelley improved upon these early algorithms, leading to the modern versions we use today.

How Gradient Descent Works

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how gradient descent works:

  1. Initialize the parameters of our model randomly or using a heuristic method.
  2. Compute the loss function for the current parameter values.
  3. Compute the gradient of the loss function with respect to each parameter.
  4. Update the parameter values by subtracting the gradient multiplied by a learning rate.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 until convergence or a stopping criterion is reached.

The learning rate is a hyperparameter that controls how quickly the algorithm converges. A high learning rate can lead to fast convergence but may also cause the algorithm to overshoot the optimal solution. On the other hand, a low learning rate can lead to more stable convergence but may also slow down the process.

Applications of Gradient Descent

Gradient descent has numerous applications in machine learning, including:

  1. Neural Networks: Gradient descent is used to train the weights and biases of neural networks.
  2. Logistic Regression: Gradient descent is used to optimize the parameters of logistic regression models.
  3. Linear Regression: Gradient descent can be used to optimize the parameters of linear regression models.
  4. Support Vector Machines: Gradient descent is used to train support vector machines.
  5. Optimization Problems: Gradient descent can be used to solve a wide range of optimization problems, not just in machine learning.

Benefits and Challenges of Gradient Descent


  1. Flexibility: Gradient descent can be applied to a wide range of machine learning models.
  2. Efficiency: Gradient descent is computationally efficient, making it suitable for large datasets.
  3. Convergence: Gradient descent is guaranteed to converge to the global minimum of the loss function.


  1. Hyperparameter Tuning: Finding the optimal hyperparameters can be challenging and time-consuming.
  2. Local Minima: Gradient descent may get stuck in local minima, leading to suboptimal solutions.
  3. Non-Convex Loss Functions: Gradient descent may not work well with non-convex loss functions.


Gradient descent is a powerful optimization algorithm that is widely used in machine learning. It’s an essential tool for training models and solving optimization problems. By understanding the history, concept, and applications of gradient descent, we can better appreciate its importance and limitations in the field of machine learning.