Machine learning (ML) plays a growing role in the design and discovery of chemicals, aiming to reduce the need to perform expensive experiments and simulations. ML for such applications is promising but difficult, as models must generalize to vast chemical spaces from small training sets and must have reliable uncertainty quantification metrics to identify and prioritize unexplored regions. Ab initio computational chemistry and chemical intuition alike often take advantage of differences between chemical conditions, rather than their absolute structure or state, to generate more reliable results. We have developed an analogous comparison-based approach for ML regression, called pairwise difference regression (PADRE), which is applicable to arbitrary underlying learning models and operates on pairs of input data points. During training, the model learns to predict differences between all possible pairs of input points. During prediction, the test points are paired with all training set points, giving rise to a set of predictions that can be treated as a distribution of which the mean is treated as a final prediction and the dispersion is treated as an uncertainty measure. Pairwise difference regression was shown to reliably improve the performance of the random forest algorithm across five chemical ML tasks. Additionally, the pair-derived dispersion is both well correlated with model error and performs well in active learning. We also show that this method is competitive with state-of-the-art neural network techniques. Thus, pairwise difference regression is a promising tool for candidate selection algorithms used in chemical discovery.

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