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Scilab Help >> Optimization and Simulation > numderivative


approximate derivatives of a function (Jacobian or Hessian)

Calling Sequence

J = numderivative(f, x)
J = numderivative(f, x, h)
J = numderivative(f, x, h, order)
J = numderivative(f, x, h, order, H_form)
J = numderivative(f, x, h, order, H_form, Q)
[J, H] = numderivative(...)



a function or a list, the function to differenciate.


a n-by-1 or 1-by-n vector of doubles, real, the point where to compute the derivatives.


a 1-by-1 or n-by-1 vector of doubles, the step used in the finite difference approximations. If h is not provided, then the default step is computed depending on x and the order. If h is a 1-by-1 matrix, it is expanded to the same size as x.


a 1-by-1 matrix of doubles, integer, positive, the order of the finite difference formula (default order=2). The available values of order are 1, 2 or 4.


a string, the form in which the Hessian will be returned (default H_form="default").

The available values are "default", "blockmat" or "hypermat". See the section "The shape of the Hessian" below for details on this option.


a real matrix of doubles, modifies the directions of differenciation (default is Q=eye(n,n)). The matrix Q is expected to be orthogonal. Q provides the possibility to remove the arbitrariness of using the canonical basis to approximate the derivatives of a function.


a m-by-n matrix of doubles, the approximated Jacobian. The row J(k, :) approximates the gradient of fk, for k = 1, 2, ..., m.


a matrix of doubles, the approximated Hessian. The elements of H approximate the second-order partial derivatives of f.


Computes the approximated Jacobian and Hessian matrices of a function with finite differences.

The function f takes as input argument x, a n-by-1 vector, and returns y, a m-by-1 vector. In the following, the k-th component of f is denoted by fk and the Hessian matrix of fk is denoted by Hk, for k = 1, 2, ..., m.

Any optional argument equal to the empty matrix [] is replaced by its default value.

In general, the order=1 formula provides the largest error (least accurate), the order = 2 formula provides an average error and the order=4 formula provides the lowest error (most accurate). However, there are cases for which this is not true: see the section "Accuracy issues" below for more details on this topic.

The second derivatives are computed by composition of first order derivatives.

The function

The function f must have the following header:

            y = f (x)



a n-by-1 vector of doubles, the current point


a m-by-1 vector of doubles, the function value

It might happen that the function requires additionnal arguments to be evaluated. In this case, we can use the following feature. The argument f can also be the list (myfun, a1, a2, ...). In this case, myfun, the first element in the list, must be a function and must have the header:

                y = myfun (x, a1, a2, ...)
where the input arguments a1, a2, ... are automatically appended at the end of the calling sequence.

The shape of the Hessian

The H_form option changes the dimensions of the output argument H. This manages the general case where m is different from 1, that is, when there are several functions to differenciate at the same time.

The possible values of H_form are:

H_form = "default":

H is a m-by-(n^2) matrix; in this form, the row H(k, :) contains Hk:

                        H(k, :) == Hk(:)'
H_form = "blockmat":

H is a (mn)-by-n matrix: the n-by-n Hessian matrices of each component of f are stacked row-by-row, that is:

                        H == [H1 ; H2 ; ... ; Hm]
H_form = "hypermat":

H is a n-by-n matrix for m=1, and a n-by-n-by-m hypermatrix otherwise. The matrix H(:, :, k) is the Hessian matrix of the k-th component of f, i.e.

                        H(:, :, k) == Hk


If the problem is correctly scaled, increasing the order of the finite difference formula may reduce the error of approximation but requires more function evaluations. The following list presents the number of function evaluations required to compute the Jacobian depending on the order of the formula and the dimension of x, denoted by n:

  • order = 1, the number of function evaluations is n+1,

  • order = 2, the number of function evaluations is 2n,

  • order = 4, the number of function evaluations is 4n.

Computing the Hessian matrix requires the square of the number of function evaluations, as detailed in the following list.

  • order = 1, the number of function evaluations is (n+1)^2 (total is (n+1)^2+n+1),

  • order = 2, the number of function evaluations is 4n^2 (total is 4n^2+2n),

  • order = 4, the number of function evaluations is 16n^2 (total is 16n^2+4n).


// The function to differenciate
function y=f(x)
  f1 = sin(x(1)*x(2)) + exp(x(2)*x(3)+x(1))
  f2 = sum(x.^3)
  y = [f1; f2]
// The exact gradient
function [g1, g2]=exactg(x)
  g1(1) = cos(x(1)*x(2))*x(2) + exp(x(2)*x(3)+x(1))
  g1(2) = cos(x(1)*x(2))*x(1) + exp(x(2)*x(3)+x(1))*x(3)
  g1(3) = exp(x(2)*x(3) + x(1))*x(2)
  g2(1) = 3*x(1)^2
  g2(2) = 3*x(2)^2
  g2(3) = 3*x(3)^2
// The exact Hessian
function [H1, H2]=exactH(x)
  H1(1, 1) = -sin(x(1)*x(2))*x(2)^2 + exp(x(2)*x(3)+x(1))
  H1(1, 2) = cos(x(1)*x(2)) - sin(x(1)*x(2))*x(2)*x(1) + exp(x(2)*x(3)+x(1))*x(3)
  H1(1, 3) = exp(x(2)*x(3)+x(1))*x(2)
  H1(2, 1) = H1(1, 2)
  H1(2, 2) = -sin(x(1)*x(2))*x(1)^2 + exp(x(2)*x(3)+x(1))*x(3)^2
  H1(2, 3) = exp(x(2)*x(3)+x(1)) + exp(x(2)*x(3)+x(1))*x(3)*x(2)
  H1(3, 1) = H1(1, 3)
  H1(3, 2) = H1(2, 3)
  H1(3, 3) = exp(x(2)*x(3)+x(1))*x(2)^2
  H2(1, 1) = 6*x(1)
  H2(1, 2) = 0
  H2(1, 3) = 0
  H2(2, 1) = H2(1, 2)
  H2(2, 2) = 6*x(2)
  H2(2, 3) = 0
  H2(3, 1) = H2(1, 3)
  H2(3, 2) = H2(2, 3)
  H2(3, 3) = 6*x(3)

// Compute the approximate Jacobian, the Hessian
x = [1; 2; 3];
J = numderivative(f, x)
[J, H] = numderivative(f, x)

// Compare with exact derivatives
[g1, g2] = exactg(x);
Jexact = [g1'; g2']
[H1, H2] = exactH(x);
Hexact = [H1(:)'; H2(:)']

// Configure the step
J = numderivative(f, x, 1.e-1)

// Configure the order
J = numderivative(f, x, [], 4)

// Configure Hessian shapes
[J, H] = numderivative(f, x, [], [], "blockmat")
[J, H] = numderivative(f, x, [], [], "hypermat")

// Configure Q
n = 3;
Q = qr(rand(n, n))
J = numderivative(f, x, [], [], [], Q)

// Test order 1, 2 and 4 formulas.
// For the order 4 formula, there are some entries in H
// which are computed as nonzero.
[g1, g2] = exactg(x);
[H1, H2] = exactH(x);
Jexact = [g1'; g2'];
Hexact = [H1(:)'; H2(:)'];
for i = [1, 2, 4]
  [J, H] = numderivative(f, x, [], i);
  dJ = floor(min(assert_computedigits(J, Jexact)));
  dH = floor(min(assert_computedigits(H, Hexact)));
  mprintf("order = %d, dJ = %d, dH = %d \n", i, dJ, dH);

Passing extra parameters

In the following example, we use a function which requires the extra-argument p. Hence, we use the feature that the argument f can be a list, where the first argument is the function G and the remaining elements are automatically passed to the function.

function y=G(x, p)
  f1 = sin(x(1)*x(2)*p) + exp(x(2)*x(3)+x(1))
  f2 = sum(x.^3)
  y = [f1; f2]

p = 1;
[J, H] = numderivative(list(G, p), x)

The Taylor formula

If H is given in its default form, then the Taylor series of f(x) up to terms of second order is given by:

In the following script, we check this formula with numerical differences.

// The function to differenciate
function y=f(x)
  f1 = sin(x(1)*x(2)) + exp(x(2)*x(3)+x(1))
  f2 = sum(x.^3)
  y = [f1; f2]
x = [1; 2; 3];
dx = 1e-3*[1; 1; -1];
[J, H] = numderivative(f, x);
f(x+dx)-f(x)-J*dx-1/2*H*(dx .*. dx)

In the following example, we use a function which requires three extra-arguments A, p and w.

// A trivial example
function y=f(x, A, p, w)
  y = x'*A*x + p'*x + w;
// with Jacobian and Hessian given
// by J(x) = x'*(A+A')+p' and H(x) = A+A'.
A = rand(3, 3);
p = rand(3, 1);
w = 1;
x = rand(3, 1);
h = 1;
[J, H] = numderivative(list(f, A, p, w), x, h, [], "blockmat")

Accuracy issues

When the step h is not provided, the numderivative function tries to compute a step which provides a sufficient accuracy. This step depends on the degree of the derivative (Jacobian or Hessian), the order of the formula and the point x. More precisely, if x is nonzero, then the default step h is a vector with the same size as x, scaled with the absolute value of x.

In the following example, we compute the derivative of the square root function. The following script plots a graph which represents the relative error of the numerical derivative depending on the step. We can see that there is an optimal step which minimizes the relative error.

// Its exact derivative
function y=mydsqrt(x)
    y = 0.5 * x^(-0.5)

x = 1.0;
n = 1000;
logharray = linspace (-16, 0, n);
for i = 1:n
    h = 10^(logharray(i));
    expected = mydsqrt(x);
    computed = numderivative (sqrt, x, h);
    relerr = abs(computed - expected) / abs(expected);
    logearray (i) = log10 (relerr);
plot (logharray, logearray);
xtitle("Relative error of numderivative (x = 1.0)", ..
  "log(h)", "log(RE)");

The strategy in numderivative provides a sufficient accuracy in many cases, but can fail to be accurate in some cases. In fact, the optimal step also depends on the function value f(x) and is second derivative, both of which are unknown at the time where the default step is computed. See "Practical optimization", by Gill, Murray and Wright, Academic Press, 1981, for more details on this topic. The relevant sections are "4.6.1. Finite-difference Approximations to First Derivatives" and "8.6 Computing finite differences".


5.5.0 Function numderivative introduced.
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Last updated:
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