What is numerical differentiation?

In school, we learned how to differentiate some functions. Maybe you remember that the derivative of x^2 is 2x. But could you differentiate an arbitrary JavaScript function? And what would that even mean?

Let’s start small:

function f(x) {
  return 7 * x;

How might you differentiate f? Let’s start with the stupidest thing that works!:

> f(3)
> f(3.01)

What happened here? We increased the input x by 0.01, and as a result, the output increased by 0.07. The output increase was 7 times more than our change to the input. In math-speak, we say that the derivative of f(3) with respect to x is 7.

We’ve just discovered the simplest, stupidest form of differentiation:

function derivative(f) {
  return (x) => {
    const changeToInput = 0.00000001;
    const changeToOutput = f(x + changeToInput) - f(x);
    return changeToOutput / changeToInput;

With our magic derivative function, we can differentiate x^2 to get a function equivalent to 2x:

> function square(x) { return x * x; }
> const derivative_of_square = derivative(square);
> derivative_of_square(-13)

But JS functions can have multiple parameters. Here’s one that multiplies its arguments:

function mul(a, b) {
  return a * b;

What would it even mean to find the derivative of mul(2, 3)? Which argument are we tweaking, a or b? Let’s try it with both:

> mul(2, 3)
> mul(2.01, 3)
> mul(2, 3.01)

Above, we see that the derivative for a is 0.03 / 0.01 = 3, and the derivative for b is 0.02 / 0.01 = 2. We can package this up nicely as the array [3, 2]. In math-speak, the values in this array are called partial derivatives, and the entire array is called the Jacobian of the sum function.

We can modify our derivative function to find the partial derivative for each parameter, and return the array:

function derivative(f) {
  return (...args) => {
    const changeToInput = 0.00000001;

    const derivatives = [];

    for (let i = 0; i < args.length; i++) {
      const changedArgs = [...args];
      changedArgs[i] += changeToInput;
      const changeToOutput = f(...changedArgs) - f(...args);
      derivatives.push(changeToOutput / changeToInput);

    return derivatives;

Using this, we can find the derivative of mul at the arguments (2, 3):

> derivative(mul)(2, 3)
[ 3, 2 ]

This is the simplest numerical differentiation method. Its biggest problem is efficiency. If the function f has a million parameters, then evaluating derivative(f)(...) calls the function f two million times! In the next post, we’ll see automatic differentiation, a technique that only calls f once.

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