Random Forests as a Viable Method to Select and Discover High-redshift Quasars

We present a method of selecting quasars up to redshift $\approx$ 6 with random forests, a supervised machine learning method, applied to Pan-STARRS1 and WISE data. We find that, thanks to the increasing set of known quasars we can assemble a training set that enables supervised machine learning algorithms to become a competitive alternative to other methods up to this redshift. We present a candidate set for the redshift range 4.8 to 6.3 which includes the region around z = 5.5 where quasars are difficult to select due to photometric similarity to red and brown dwarfs. We demonstrate that under our survey restrictions we can reach a high completeness ($66 \pm 7 \%$ below redshift 5.6 / $83^{+6}_{-9}\%$ above redshift 5.6) while maintaining a high selection efficiency ($78^{+10}_{-8}\%$ / $94^{+5}_{-8}\%$). Our selection efficiency is estimated via a novel method based on the different distributions of quasars and contaminants on the sky. The final catalog of 515 candidates includes 225 known quasars. We predict the candidate catalog to contain an additional $148^{+41}_{-33}$ new quasars below redshift 5.6 and $45^{+5}_{-8}$ above and make the catalog publicly available. Spectroscopic follow-up observations of 37 candidates lead us to discover 20 new high redshift quasars (18 at $4.6\le z\le5.5$, 2 $z\sim5.7$). These observations are consistent with our predictions on efficiency. We argue that random forests can lead to higher completeness because our candidate set contains a number of objects that would be rejected by common color cuts, including one of the newly discovered redshift 5.7 quasars.
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