What is Clustering: Artificial Intelligence Explained




Various geometric shapes in different colors grouped together

Clustering is a fundamental concept in the world of Artificial Intelligence (AI). It is a type of unsupervised learning technique that involves the grouping of data points. Given a set of data points, we can use a clustering algorithm to classify each data point into a specific group. In theory, data points that are in the same group should have similar properties and/or features, while data points in different groups should have highly dissimilar properties and/or features.

Clustering is a method of unsupervised learning and a common technique for statistical data analysis used in many fields, including machine learning, data mining, pattern recognition, image analysis, information retrieval, bioinformatics, data compression, and computer graphics.

Types of Clustering

Clustering can be broadly divided into two subgroups: hard clustering and soft clustering. In hard clustering, each data point either belongs to a cluster completely or not. For example, in the case of a land area, each data point is either a desert, mountain, forest, etc. There is no in-between. On the other hand, in soft clustering, instead of putting each data point into a separate cluster, a probability or likelihood of that data point to be in those clusters is assigned. For example, the same land area can be a mix of desert, mountain, forest, etc with each land type having a probability.

There are several types of clustering methods, including partitioning methods, hierarchical clustering, density-based clustering, grid-based methods, and model-based clustering. Each of these methods has its own strengths and weaknesses, and is suitable for different types of problems.

Partitioning Methods

Partitioning methods divide the data set into a set of k groups or clusters, where each group contains at least one object, and each object belongs to exactly one group. The most common partitioning method is the k-means clustering algorithm. The k-means algorithm divides a set of N objects into K clusters so that the resulting intracluster similarity is high but the intercluster similarity is low. Cluster similarity is measured in regard to the mean value of the objects in a cluster, which can be viewed as the cluster’s centroid or center of gravity.

Another partitioning method is the k-medoids method, which is more robust to noise and outliers as compared to k-means because it uses medoids to represent the clusters rather than the mean value. A medoid can be defined as the object of a cluster whose average dissimilarity to all the objects in the cluster is minimal, i.e., it is the most centrally located point in the cluster.

Hierarchical Clustering

Hierarchical clustering, as the name suggests is an algorithm that builds hierarchy of clusters. This algorithm starts with all the data points assigned to a cluster of their own. Then two nearest clusters are merged into the same cluster. In the end, this algorithm terminates when there is only a single cluster left. The results of hierarchical clustering can be shown using dendrogram. The dendrogram can be interpreted as: The closer the points in the dendrogram, the closer the distance between the data points.

There are two types of hierarchical clustering, Agglomerative and Divisive. In the former, data points are clustered using a bottom-up approach starting with individual data points, while in the latter top-down approach is followed where all the data points are treated as one big cluster and the clustering process involves dividing the one big cluster into several small clusters.

Applications of Clustering

Clustering has a wide array of applications spanning several domains. Right from public health to market research, clustering plays an integral role in deciphering meaningful insights from a large set of data points. Clustering is used in market segmentation; where the market researcher aims to understand the preference of different customer groups. It is also used in image segmentation, where a digital image is divided into multiple segments to simplify image analysis.

Other important areas where clustering is used include document clustering, in information retrieval systems for grouping and categorizing documents, in recommendation systems to find a group of similar users or items, in anomaly detection to detect outliers in the dataset, and in biology, it is used to derive plant and animal taxonomies, categorize genes with similar functionalities and gain insight into structures inherent to populations.

Challenges in Clustering

Despite its wide range of applications and inherent simplicity, clustering comes with its own set of challenges. The most significant challenge in clustering is the difficulty in determining the optimal number of clusters. Too many clusters can overfit the data and too few can oversimplify the data. This is particularly challenging because it is often not known a priori how many clusters are appropriate for a given dataset, and because the quality of the clustering result is not always obvious.

The other challenges in clustering include dealing with different types and shapes of data, scalability to handle large datasets, dealing with noisy data, and the difficulty of interpreting the clustering results. Despite these challenges, clustering is a powerful tool for data analysis and understanding, and it continues to be an area of active research in the field of machine learning.

Clustering in Artificial Intelligence

In the context of AI, clustering is used for several important tasks including data preprocessing, where it can be used to condense the data set or to detect outliers. In semi-supervised learning, clustering is used to find the unlabeled data to train a learner. Clustering can also be used to refine the input to other algorithms, to find similar examples, or to provide a similarity measure for example-based learning.

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Clustering can also be used in AI for anomaly detection, where the goal is to identify unusual data points in your dataset. Unusual data, in other words, outliers, are often interesting from a business perspective. They can either be the result of an error in the data collection process or indicate a new trend. In either case, it’s important to detect these outliers. For example, if you are clustering credit card transactions to detect fraud, the outliers will be the fraudulent transactions.


Clustering is a versatile tool in the field of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, providing a way of automatically summarizing or reducing the complexity of large datasets. While it comes with its own set of challenges such as determining the optimal number of clusters or dealing with different types of data, the wide range of applications of clustering from market research to anomaly detection makes it an indispensable tool in the field.

As we continue to generate more and more data, the importance of methods to make sense of that data grows. Clustering provides a means of doing so, by grouping similar data together and thus providing a way of understanding the underlying patterns in the data. As such, it is likely that clustering will remain a key technique in data analysis and machine learning for the foreseeable future.

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