Clustering techniques apply when there is no class to be predicted but rather when the instances are to be divided into natural groups. These clusters presumably reflect some mechanism at work in the domain from which instances are drawn, a mechanism that causes some instances to bear a stronger resemblance to each other than they do to the remaining instances.
The groups that are identified may be exclusive so that any instance belongs in only one group. Or they may be overlapping so that an instance may fall into several groups. Or they may be probabilistic, whereby an instance belongs to each group with a certain probability.
Iterative distance-based clustering
The classic clustering technique is called k-means. First, you specify in advance how many clusters are being sought: this is the parameter k. Then k points are chosen at random as cluster centers. All instances are assigned to their closest cluster center according to the ordinary Euclidean distance metric. Next the centroid, or mean, of the instances in each cluster is calculated—this is the “means” part. These centroids are taken to be new center values for their respective clusters. Finally, the whole process is repeated with the new cluster centers. Iteration continues until the same points are assigned to each cluster in consecutive rounds, at which stage the cluster centers have stabilized and will remain the same forever.
Faster distance calculations
For example, you can project the dataset and make cuts along selected axes, instead of using the arbitrary hyperplane divisions that are implied by choosing the nearest cluster center. But this inevitably compromises the quality of the resulting clusters.
Here’s a better way of speeding things up. Finding the closest cluster center is not so different from finding nearest neighbors in instance-based learning. Can the same efficient solutions—kD-trees and ball trees—be used? Yes! Indeed they can be applied in an even more efficient way, because in each iteration of k-means all the data points are processed together, whereas in instance-based learning test instances are processed individually.
Ian H. Witten, Eibe Frank. (1999). Data mining practical machine learning tools and techniques. Elsevier.