In this work we consider the feature ranking problem where, given a set of training instances, the task is to associate a score to the features in order to assess their relevance. Feature ranking is a very important tool for decision support systems, and may be used as an auxiliary step of feature selection to reduce the high dimensionality of real-world data. We focus on regression problems by assuming that the process underlying the generated data can be approximated by a continuous function (for instance, a feedforward neural network). We formally state the notion of relevance of a feature by introducing a minimum zero-norm inversion problem of a neural network, which is a nonsmooth, constrained optimization problem. We employ a concave approximation of the zero-norm function and we define a smooth, global optimization problem to be solved in order to assess the relevance of the features. We present the new feature ranking method based on the solution of instances of the global optimization problem depending on the available training data. Computational experiments both on artificial and real data sets are performed. The obtained results and the comparison with existing methods show the effectiveness of the proposed feature ranking method.
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