We now discuss how to view proofs of certain *regularity lemmas* as applications of the FTRL methodology.

The Szemeredi Regularity Lemma states (in modern language) that every dense graph is well approximate by a graph with a very simple structure, made of the (edge-disjoint) union of a constant number of weighted complete bipartite subgraphs. The notion of approximation is a bit complicated to describe, but it enables the proof of *counting lemmas*, which show that, for example, the number of triangles in the original graph is well approximated by the (appropriately weighted) number of triangles in the approximating graph.

Analogous regularity lemmas, in which an arbitrary object is approximated by a low-complexity object, have been proved for hypergraphs, for subsets of abelian groups (for applications to additive combinatorics), in an analytic setting (for applications to graph limits) and so on.

The *weak regularity lemma* of Frieze and Kannan provides, as the name suggests, a weaker kind of approximation than the one promised by Szemeredi’s lemma, but one that is achievable with a graph that has a much smaller number of pieces. If is the “approximation error” that one is willing to tolerate, Szemeredi’s lemma constructs a graph that is the union of a weighted complete bipartite subgraphs where the height of the tower of exponentials is polynomial in . In the Frieze-Kannan construction, that number is cut down to a single exponential . This result too can be generalized to graph limits, subsets of groups, and so on.

With Tulsiani and Vadhan, we proved an abstract version of the Frieze-Kannan lemma (which can be applied to graphs, functions, distributions, etc.) in which the “complexity” of the approximation is . In the graph case, the approximating graph is still the union of complete bipartite subgraphs, but it has a more compact representation. One consequence of this result is that for every high-min-entropy distribution , there is an efficiently samplable distribution with the same min-entropy as , that is indistinguishable from . Such a result could be taken to be a proof that what GANs attempt to achieve is possible in principle, except that our result requires an unrealistically high entropy (and we achieve “efficient samplability” and “indistinguishability” only in a weak sense).

All these results are proved with a similar strategy: one starts from a trivial approximator, for example the empty graph, and then repeats the following iteration: if the current approximator achieves the required approximation, then we are done; otherwise take a counterexample, and modify the approximator using the counterexample. Then one shows that:

- The number of iterations is bounded, by keeping track of an appropriate potential function;
- The “complexity” of the approximator does not increase too much from iteration to iteration.

Typically, the number of iterations is , and the difference between the various results is given by whether at each iteration the “complexity” increases exponentially, or by a multiplicative factor, or by an additive term.

Like in the post on pseudorandom constructions, one can view such constructions as an online game between a “builder” and an “inspector,” except that now the online optimization algorithm will play the role of the builder, and the inspector is the one acting as an adversary. The bound on the number of rounds comes from the fact that the online optimization algorithms that we have seen so far achieve amortized error per round after rounds, so it takes rounds for the error bound to go below .

We will see that the abstract weak regularity lemma of my paper with Tulsiani and Vadhan (and hence the graph weak regularity lemma of Frieze and Kannan) can be immediately deduced from the theory developed in the previous post.

When I was preparing these notes, I was asked by several people if the same can be done for Szemeredi’s lemma. I don’t see a natural way of doing that. For such results, one should maybe use the online optimization techniques as a guide rather than as a black box. In general, iterative arguments (in which one constructs an object through a series of improvements) require the choice of a potential function, and an argument about how much the potential function changes at every step. The power of the FTRL method is that it creates the potential function and a big part of the analysis automatically and, even where it does not work directly, it can serve as an inspiration.

One could imagine a counterfactual history in which people first proved the weak regularity lemma using online optimization out of the box, as we do in this post, and then decided to try and use an L2 potential function and an iterative method to get the Szemeredi lemma, subsequently trying to see what happens if the potential function is entropy, thus discovering Jacob Fox’s major improvement on the “triangle removal lemma,” which involves the construction of an approximator that just approximates the number of triangles.