K-Nearest Neighbors (KNN) Algorithm in Machine Learning

K-Nearest Neighbor (KNN) is a supervised machine learning algorithm that can be used for both classification and regression tasks. It is one of the oldest machine learning algorithms and is still widely used today due to its simplicity. KNN is unique in that it does not explicitly map input variables to target variables during the learning process. In this article, we will dive into the details of how KNN works.

Key Takeaways from this blog

In this article, we will cover the following topics related to the KNN algorithm in machine learning:

  • What is KNN and how does it work?
  • Why is KNN considered an instance-based or lazy learning algorithm?
  • Why is KNN a non-parametric algorithm?
  • What are the common assumptions made by KNN?
  • How does the value of K impact the performance of the KNN algorithm?
  • How does feature scaling affect KNN?
  • What are Voronoi cells and Voronoi diagrams and how do they relate to KNN?
  • Using KNN for regression tasks.
  • Implementing KNN in Python.

So let’s start without any further delay.

What is the KNN algorithm in Machine Learning?

As we mentioned in the introduction, KNN is an algorithm that does not rely on traditional methods of learning parameters from the training data and fitting a function. Instead, it simply memorizes the training data and uses this information to classify new test samples based on their similarity to the learned training samples. Essentially, KNN can be thought of as an algorithm that relies on memorization rather than a more traditional approach to machine learning.

Why is KNN instance-based learning?

Instance-based learning, also known as memory-based learning, refers to the fact that the KNN algorithm compares new data samples to training data samples stored in its memory rather than using explicit generalization.

KNN is sometimes referred to as a "lazy" algorithm because it only performs computation when it receives new observations. This means that KNN simply stores all of the training data in its memory and defers calculations until it is given a new test sample to classify.

Why is KNN a non-parametric algorithm?

KNN is classified as a non-parametric algorithm because it learns the entire training set, meaning that its learning is not dependent on the given data. If more instances are introduced in the future, the learning will change significantly. This is a characteristic of non-parametric algorithms.

What are the common assumptions in KNN?

The KNN algorithm makes two main assumptions:

  1. Every sample in the training data is mapped to a real n-dimensional space, where each sample has the same number of attributes or dimensions.
  2. The "nearest neighbors" are defined using a specific distance measure, such as Euclidean distance, Manhattan distance, or Hamming distance. The choice of distance measure can significantly impact the predictions made by the KNN algorithm.

What are the various distances we can use to find neighbors in KNN algorithms?

Working of KNN

To understand how the KNN algorithm works, let's consider the steps involved in using KNN for classification:

Step 1: We first need to select the number of neighbors we want to consider. This is the term K in the KNN algorithm and highly affects the prediction.

Step 2: We need to find the K neighbors based on any distance metric. It can be Euclidean, Manhatten, or our custom distance metric. We will have the test sample on which we want the prediction. The Closest K samples in the training data from this test sample will be our K neighbors.

Step 3: We need to count how many neighbors are from the different classes among the selected K neighbors.

Step 4: Now, we have to assign the test data sample to the class for which the neighbors count was maximum.

We performed the prediction in these four simple steps. In summary, the KNN algorithm at the training phase stores the dataset, and when it gets a new query, it classifies that query into a class similar to the existing query.

How the choice of k affects the prediction in KNN algorithm?

Consider an example shown in the above image. The entire training dataset is initially considered and mapped in an R² space of positive and negative classes. The test case xq is then classified using 1-NN (1 neighbor) and 4-NN (4 neighbors) classifiers. The results for both are different, as we see that xq is classified as +ve for 1-NN and -ve for 4-NN.

How the value of K affects the KNN algorithm?

In the KNN algorithm, the value of K can range from 1 to the total number of samples. A small value of K means that the model is prone to overfitting and vulnerable to outliers. This model will have high variance and low bias. On the other hand, a model with a high value of K will have low variance and high bias, resulting in underfitting. As the value of K is slowly increased from 1 to the number of training samples, the model will smooth out the boundary surfaces.

K = 1: A model with K=1 will have 0 training error and hard boundaries for determining the class of test query.

K = len(sample data): This model will be highly biased towards the majority class (with more samples) and less accurate.

Note: Keeping the K values as odd is advisable to reduce the chances of getting a tie.

The effect of k in KNN classification algorithm

How does feature scaling affect KNN?

KNN depends highly on the distance between data samples; hence scaling plays a vital role here. Suppose we train the KNN algorithm on unscaled data. There can be a case where different attributes lie in various scales, making our model biased towards the features with lesser magnitude values. To avoid that, it is always advisable to standardize the attributes before applying the KNN algorithm. For a better understanding, please look at this blog to visualize how distance calculation can be affected by scaling.

How scaling features affect the KNN prediction?

Voronoi cell and Voronoi diagrams

Other ML algorithms like linear regression, logistic regression, and SVMs try to fit a mapping function from input to output. This mapping function is also known as the Hypothesis function. But KNN is different. It does not form any explicit Hypothesis function but creates a hypothesis space. For a dataset in R², the hypothesis space is a polyhedron formed using the training samples. Let’s first understand what a Voronoi cell is.

What is Voronoi Cell?

Suppose the training set is “T,” and the elements of that training set are “x”. Then Voronoi Cell of xi is a polytope (a geometric shape with “flat” sides) consisting of all points closer to xi than any other points in T.

What is voronoi diagram and its prototype in KNN algorithm?

If we observe in the above image, initially, every cell contains a single sample which means K = 0, and as we increase the value of K, two cells merge and form a new polytope including K samples. Voronoi Cells cover the entire training space of T, and when we combine them, it will create Voronoi Diagram.

KNN for Regression problems

So far, we have discussed how we could use the KNN algorithm to solve the classification tasks, but this machine learning algorithm can also solve regression problems. We need to tweak the approach slightly. Instead of counting the K nearest neighbor class labels, what if we average the data over K neighbors? Yes! It will act as the regression model in such a scenario.

How does KNN work as regression algorithm?

For example, let’s say we have a test data X for which we want to predict the continuous variable Y. Suppose we have finalized that our neighbors can only be 3 (i.e., K=3). Three neighbors from the training data are:

X1 → Y1, X2 → Y2, X3 → Y3. We should be clear that KNN is a supervised learning algorithm; hence, we will always have the corresponding labels for the input variables while training. At the time of prediction, we can average the three labels to find the corresponding label of the test data. For example, Y = (Y1 + Y2 + Y3)/3. This averaging can be replaced with techniques like median, mode, or custom approach. 

Advantages of the KNN algorithm

The KNN algorithm is well-known for its simplicity and has several key strengths, including:

  • Zero training time: KNN requires very little training time compared to other machine learning algorithms.
  • Sample efficiency: KNN does not require a large training sample size.
  • Explainability: It is easy to understand the reasoning behind KNN's predictions at each step.
  • Ease of adding and removing data: With KNN, you can easily update the memory and perform inference without the need to retrain the model, as is required with other machine learning algorithms.
  • Insensitivity to class imbalance: If a dataset has significantly more instances of one class compared to others, KNN is less affected by this imbalance compared to other machine learning algorithms.

Disadvantages of the KNN algorithm

No doubt, KNN is cool, but this algorithm has some limitations. It is not the first choice among Machine Learning experts, and the reasons are:

  • Needs a lot of storage: KNN stores the training data in its memory and performs inference based on that. It makes the algorithm unemployable on edge platforms.
  • Predictions are Slow: The time complexity of KNN is O(dN), where d is the dimension or number of features and N is the total number of samples. The more data, the more will be the prediction time.
  • Irrelevant features can fool the nearest neighbors.

KNN Implementation in Python using sklearn

Let’s implement the KNN algorithm in python to solve a classification problem.

Step 1: Import the necessary dataset libraries.

The dataset used to implement KNN is the famous Iris dataset imported from the Scikit-learndatasets as load_iris. Other libraries are imported for training, preprocessing, and evaluation.

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt   # update the plot 
from sklearn import datasets# read the data 
import numpy as np #for arrays 
from sklearn.model_selection import train_test_split # split the data 
from sklearn.preprocessing import StandardScaler # scale the data 
from sklearn.neighbors import KNeighborsClassifier # the algorithm 

from sklearn.metrics import accuracy_score  #grade the results 
import pandas as pd 

iris = datasets.load_iris() # read the data 

X = iris.data[:]  # select the features to use 
y = iris.target   # select the classes

iris_dataframe = pd.DataFrame (data= np.c_[iris['data'], iris['target']],

	columns= iris['feature_names'] + ['target'])

grr = pd.plotting.scatter_matrix(iris_dataframe,
	                              figsize=(15, 15),

Step 2: Understanding the data

This dataset contains four variables: sepal length, sepal width, petal length, and petal width, which describe iris plants of three types: Setosa, Versicolour, and Virginica. There are 150 observations in the dataset, each labeled with the actual type of plant.

Step 3: Visualization

The Iris dataset, which has four dimensions, can be visualized using a pairwise scatter plot matrix to distinguish between the dimensions. This plot helps to visualize the relationships among multiple variables within subdivisions of the dataset. In the image below, the violet color represents the Setosa class, green represents the Versicolour class, and yellow represents the Virginica class.

How to draw the pair plot of IRIS dataset?

Step 4: Data Preprocessing

The entire dataset is initially split into the training and testing part using the traintestsplit function of Scikit-learn. A standard scaler is used in the next step, StandardScalar( ), to standardize the data (column-wise). When fit to a dataset, the function will transform the dataset to mean μ = 0 and standard deviation σ = 1.

A dataset having N samples and m features,

Distance calculation using euclidean distance formula.

Thus every data is then updated as,

How to standardize the dataset?

X_train, X_test, y_train, y_test = train_test_split(X,y, test_size=0.25,random_state=0)

SC = StandardScaler()# create the standard scaler 
sc.fit(X_train) # fit to the training data 
x_train_std = sc.transform(X_train) # transform the training data 
X_test_std = sc.transform(X_test) # same transformation on test data

Step 5: Model Fitting and Evaluation

We will fit the KNN model for different K values ranging from 1 to the number of samples in the testing dataset. The metric “Minkowski” along with p = 2 represents the Euclidean distance in the R-space. The model will be fitted on different values of K and then be used to predict the output for a test sample size.

accuracyTest = {}; accuracy Train = {} 

for k in range (len (y_test):

	knn = KNeighborsClassifier(n_neighbors=k+1, p=2, metric='minkowski')
	y_pred = knn.predict(x_test_std) 
	y_train_pred = knn.predict(X_train_std) 

	if (k+1)%10==0:
		print("For k = %s" %(k+1))
		print('Number in test ', len(y_test))
		print('Misclassified samples: %d' % (y_test != y_pred).sum())

	accTrain = accuracy_score(y_train,y_train_pred)
	acc = accuracy_score(y_test, y_pred)
	accuracyTest[k+1] = acc
	accuracyTrain[k+1] = accTrain

for accuracy in [accuracy Train, accuracy Test]:
	lists = sorted(accuracy.items() # sorted by key, return a list of tuples 
	X, y = zip(*lists) # unpack a list of pairs into two tuples 
	plt.plot(x, y)

training and testing accuracy of the KNN algorithm on Iris dataset

If we prioritize the testing accuracy, the K > 18 decreases the testing accuracy sharply. The optimal number of neighbors can be around 15 to 18.

Decision Boundaries for KNN

The two datasets (training and testing) are combined to show the effect of varying K in the KNN algorithm. Only two features (petal length and width) are considered for visualization. The value of K taken is [1,25,50,75,100,112], where the training sample size is 112. The decision boundary at K = 112 returns the majority of the three classes, which is red.

X = iris.data[:, [2,3]] # select the features to use 
y = iris.target 		# select the classes

X_train, X_test, y_train, y_test = train_test_split(X,y, test_size=0.25,random_state=0)

SC = StandardScaler()# create the standard scaler 
sc.fit(X_train) # fit to the training data 
x_train_std = sc.transform(X_train) # transform the training data 
X_test_std = sc.transform(X_test) # same transformation on test data

X_combined_std = np.vstack((X_train_std, X_test_std))
y_combined = np.hstack((y_train, y_test))

print('Number in combined ', len(y_combined))
# check results on combined data 
y_combined_pred = knn.predict(X_combined_std)

print('Misclassified combined samples: %d' 1 % (y_combined != y combined_pred). sum )
print('Combined Accuracy: %.2f' % accuracy_score(y_combined, y_combined_pred)) 
# visualize the results 

for k in [1,25,50, 100, len(X_train)]:

	knn = KNeighborsClassifier (n_neighbors=k, p=2, metric='minkowski')

	knn.fit(X_train_std, y_train) 

	plot_decision_regions(X=X_combined_std, y=y_combined, classifier=knn,

	plt.xlabel('petal length [standardized]') 
	plt.ylabel('petal width [standardized]') 
	plt.legend(loc='upper left') 

Decision boundary formation for KNN algorithm with respect to K

Industrial Applications of KNN

Although there are certain limitations, this algorithm is widely used in industries because of its simplicity. Some of these applications are:

  • Email spam filtering: For detecting the trivial and fixed types of spam emails, KNN can perform well. The implementation steps of this algorithm can be found here.
  • Wine Quality prediction: Wine quality prediction is a regression task and can be solved using the KNN algorithm. The implementation can be found here.
  • Recommendation system: KNN is used to build recommendation engines that recommend some products/movies/songs to the users based on their likings or disliking.

Possible Interview Questions

The KNN algorithm is known for its explainability, which makes it a popular topic in interviews. Some potential questions that may be asked about KNN include:

  • How does KNN differ from other machine learning algorithms?
  • Can changing the distance metric affect the classification accuracy of KNN?
  • Is KNN highly sensitive to data normalization?
  • Why is KNN classified as a non-parametric algorithm?
  • What are the main drawbacks of the KNN algorithm?


In this article, we covered the concept of K-Nearest Neighbor (KNN), one of the first machine learning algorithms ever developed. We discussed how KNN defines instances as neighbors and how the value of K impacts the predictions. We also emphasized the importance of feature scaling and introduced the concept of Voronoi diagrams. We then explored the use of KNN for regression tasks and implemented the algorithm on the well-known Iris dataset. We hope you found this article informative and enjoyable.


  1. Scikit-learn: Machine Learning in Python, Pedregosa, et al., JMLR 12, pp. 2825–2830, 2011
  2. Mitchell, T. M. (1997). Machine learning., McGraw Hill series in computer science New York: McGraw-Hill.
  3. UCI Machine Learning Repository: Iris Data Set.
  4. J. D. Hunter, “Matplotlib: A 2D Graphics Environment”, Computing in Science & Engineering, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 90–95, 2007.

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