In this work, we analyze the cross-entropy function, widely used in classifiers both as a performance measure and as an optimization objective. We contextualize cross-entropy in the light of Bayesian decision theory, the formal probabilistic framework for making decisions, and we thoroughly analyze its motivation, meaning and interpretation from an information-theoretical point of view. In this sense, this article presents several contributions: First, we explicitly analyze the contribution to cross-entropy of (i) prior knowledge; and (ii) the value of the features in the form of a likelihood ratio. Second, we introduce a decomposition of cross-entropy into two components: discrimination and calibration. This decomposition enables the measurement of different performance aspects of a classifier in a more precise way; and justifies previously reported strategies to obtain reliable probabilities by means of the calibration of the output of a discriminating classifier. Third, we give different information-theoretical interpretations of cross-entropy, which can be useful in different application scenarios, and which are related to the concept of reference probabilities. Fourth, we present an analysis tool, the Empirical Cross-Entropy (ECE) plot, a compact representation of cross-entropy and its aforementioned decomposition. We show the power of ECE plots, as compared to other classical performance representations, in two diverse experimental examples: a speaker verification system, and a forensic case where some glass findings are present.
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