I keep coming back to this ICML 2015 paper by Rezende and Mohamed (arXiv version). While this is not due to the particular novelty of the papers contents, I agree that the suggested approach is very promising for any inference approach, be it VI or adaptive Monte Carlo. The paper adopts the term normalizing flow for refering to the plain old change of variables formula for integrals. With the minor change of view that one can see this as a flow and the correct but slightly alien reference to a flow defined by the Langevin SDE or Fokker-Planck, both attributed only to ML/stats literature in the paper.

The theoretical contribution feels a little like a strawman: it simply states that, as Langevin and Hamiltonian dynamics can be seen as an infinitesimal normalizing flow, and both approximate the posterior when the step size goes to zero, normalizing flows can approximate the posterior arbitrarily well. This is of course nothing that was derived in the paper, nor is it news. Nor does it say anything about the practical approach suggested.

The invertible maps suggested have practical merit however, as they allow “splitting” of a mode into two, called the planar transformation (and plotted on the right of the image), as well as “attracting/repulsing” probability mass around a point. The Jacobian correction for both invertible maps being computable in time that is linear in the number of dimensions.

# Category Archives: Inference

# A non-parametric ensemble transform method for Bayesian inference

This 2013 paper by Sebastian Reich in the Journal on Scientific Computing introduces an approach called the *Ensemble Transport Particle Filter (ETPF)*. The main innovation of ETPF, when compared to SMC-like filtering methods, lies in the resampling step. Which is

- based on an optimal transport idea and
- completely deterministic.

No rejuvenation step is used, contrary to the standard in SMC. While the notation is unfamiliar to me, coming from an SMC background, I’ll adopt it here: by denote samples from the prior with density (the , meaning forecast, is probably owed to Reich having done a lot of Bayesian weather prediction). The idea is to transform these into samples that follow the posterior density (the meaning analyzed), preferably without introducing unequal weights. Let the likelihood term be denoted by where is the data and let be the normalized importance weight. The normalization in the denominator stems from the fact that in Bayesian inference we can often only evaluate an unnormalized version of the posterior .

Then the optimal transport idea enters. Given the discrete realizations , is approximated by assigning the discrete probability vector , while is approximated by the probability vector . Now we construct a joint probability between the discrete random variables distributed according to and those distributed according to , i.e. a matrix with non-negative entries summing to 1 which has the column sum and row sum (another view would be that is a discrete copula which has prior and posterior as marginals). Let be the joint pmf induced by . To qualify as optimal transport, we now seek under the additional constraint of cyclical monotonicity. This boils down to a linear programming problem. For a fixed prior sample this induces a conditional distribution over the discretely approximated posterior given the discretely approximated prior .

We could now simply sample from this conditional to obtain equally weighted posterior samples for each . Instead, the paper proposes a deterministic transformation using the expected value . Reich proves that the mapping induced by this transformation is such that for , for . In other words, if the ensemble size M goes to infinity, we indeed get samples from the posterior.

Overall I think this is a very interesting approach. The construction of an optimal transport map based on the discrete approximations of prior and posterior is indeed novel compared to standard SMC. My one objection is that as it stands, the method will only work if the prior support covers all relevant regions of the posterior, as taking the expected value over prior samples will always lead to a contraction.

Of course, this is not a problem when M is infinite, but my intuition would be that it has a rather strong effect in our finite world. One remedy here would of course be to introduce a rejuvenation step as in SMC, for example moving each particle using MCMC steps that leave invariant.

# Operator Variational Inference

This NIPS 2016 paper by Ranganath et al. is concerned with Variational Inference using objective functions other than KL-divergence between a target density and a proposal density . It’s called *Operator VI* as a fancy way to say that one is flexible in constructing how exactly the objective function uses and test functions from some family . I completely agree with the motivation: KL-Divergence in the form indeed underestimates the variance of $\pi$ and approximates only one mode. Using KL the other way around, takes all modes into account, but still tends to underestimate variance.

As a particular case, the authors suggest an objective using what they call the Langevin-Stein Operator which does not make use of the proposal density at all but uses test functions exclusively. The only requirement is that we be able to draw samples from the proposal. The authors claim that assuming access to limits applicability of an objective/operator. This claim is not substantiated however. The example they give in equation (10) is that it is not possible to find a Jacobian correction for a certain transformation of a standard normal random variable to a bimodal distribution. However their method is not the only one to get bimodality by transforming a standard normal variable and actually the Jacobian correction can be computed even for their suggested transformation! The problem they encounter really is that they throw away one dimension of , which makes the tranformation lose injectivity. However by not throwing the variable away, we keep injectivity and it is possible to compute the density of the transformed variables. The reasons for not accessing the density I thus find rather unconvincing.

To compute expectations with respect to , the authors suggest Monte Carlo sums, where every summand uses an evaluation of or its gradient. As that is the most computationally costly part in MCMC and SMC often times, I am very curious whether the method performs any better computationally than modern adaptive Monte Carlo methods.

# Talk on Reproducing Kernel Hilbert Spaces in machine learning

Yesterday I gave a talk on Reproducing Kernel Hilbert Spaces (RKHSs) in machine learning, in the Uncertainty Quantification seminar organized by Tim Sullivan. In earlier meetings, Tim himself an Han Cheng Lie gave talks on Vladimir Bogachevs use of RKHSs in his book on Gaussian Measures, which does not seem to mention where the “Reproducing Kernel” part comes from. Which is why I decided to start out with and concentrate on kernels. I pointed out the equivalence of a very simple classification algorithm using the dot product in an RKHS with the usage of KDEs for classification (at least for a certain class of positive definite kernels that are also densities).

You can take a look at my Jupyter Notebook online or download it from Github.

# Accelerating Stochastic Gradient Descent using Predictive Variance Reduction

During the super nice International Conference on Monte Carlo techniques in the beginning of July in Paris at Université Descartes (photo), which featured many outstanding talks, one by Tong Zhang particularly caught my interest. He talked about several variants of Stochastic Gradient Descent (SGD) that basically use variance reduction techniques from Monte Carlo algorithms in order to improve the convergence rate versus vanilla SGD. Even though some of the papers mentioned in the talk do not always point out the connection to Monte Carlo variance reduction techniques.

One of the first works in this line, *Accelerating Stochastic Gradient Descent using Predictive Variance Reduction* by Johnson and Zhang, suggests using control variates to lower the variance of the loss estimate. Let be the loss for the parameter at and jth data point, then the usual batch gradient descent update is with as step size.

In naive SGD instead one picks a data point index uniformly and uses the update , usually with a decreasing step size to guarantee convergence. The expected update resulting from this Monte Carlo estimate of the batch loss is exactly the batch procedure update. However the variance of the estimate is very high, resulting in slow convergence of SGD after the first steps (even in minibatch variants).

The authors choose a well-known solution to this, namely the introduction of a control variate. Keeping a version of the parameter that is close to the optimum, say , observe that has an expected value of 0 and is thus a possible control variate. With the possible downside that whenever is updated, one has to go over the complete dataset.

The contribution, apart from the novel combination of knowledge, is the proof that this improves convergence. This proof assumes smoothness and strong convexity of the overall loss function and convexity of the for the individual data points and then shows that the proposed procedure (termed stochastic variance reduced gradient or SVRG) enjoys geometric convergence. Even though the proof uses a slightly odd version of the algorithm, namely where . Rather simply setting should intuitively improve convergence, but the authors could not report a result on that. Overall a very nice idea, and one that has been discussed in more papers quite a bit, among others by Simon Lacoste-Julien and Francis Bach.

# Nonparametric maximum likelihood inference for mixture models via convex optimization

This arXival by Feng and Dicker deals with the problem of fitting multivariate mixture estimates with maximum likelihood. One of the advantages put forward being that nonparametric maximum likelihood estimators (NPMLEs) put virtually no constraints on the base measure . While the abstract claims their approach works for arbitrary distributions as mixture components, really they make the assumption that the components are well approximated by a Gaussian (of course including distributions arising from sums of RVs because of the CLT). While theoretically NPMLEs might put no constraints on the base measure, practically in the paper first is constrained to measures supported on at most as many points as there are data points. To make the optimization problem convex, the support is further constrained to a finite grid on some compact space that the data lies on.

The main result of the paper is in Proposition 1, which basically says that the finite grid constraint indeed makes the problem convex. After that the paper directly continues with empirical evaluation. I think the method proposed is not all that general. While the elliptical unimodal (gaussian approximation) assumption would not be that problematic, the claimed theoretical flexibility of NPMLE is not really bearing fruit in this approach, as the finite grid constraint is very strong and gets rid of most flexibility left after the gaussian assumption. For instance, the gaussian location model fitted is merely a very constrained KDE without even allowing the ability of general gaussian mixture models of fitting the covariance matrix of individual components. While a finite grid support for location and covariance matrix is possible, to be practical the grid would have to be extremely dense in order gain flexibility in the fit. While it is correct that the optimization problem is becoming convex, this is bought for the price of a rigid model. However, Ewan Cameron assured me that the model is very useful for astrostatistics, and I realized that it might be so in other contexts, e.g. adaptive Monte Carlo techniques.

A minor comment regarding the allegation in the paper that nonparametric models lack interpretability: while this is certainly true for the model proposed in the paper and mainstream bayesian nonparametric models, this is not a given. One notable interpretable class of models are Mixture models with a prior on the number of components by Miller and Harrison (2015).

# Lifted Convex Quadratic Programming

This arXival by Mladenov, Kleinhans and Kersting considers taking advantage of symmetry structure in quadratic programming problems in order to speed up solvers/optimizers. The basic idea is to check which of the model parameters are indistinguishable because of symmetries in the model and assign all parameters in a group the same parameter in all steps of optimization – yielding a partition of the parameter space. Of course, this will reduce the effective dimensionality of the problem and might thus be considered a method of uncovering the lower-dimensional manifold that contains at least one optimum/solution.

The core contributions of the paper are

1) to provide the conditions under which a partition is a lifting partition, i.e. a partition such that setting all the variables in a group to the same value still includes a solution of the quadratic program

2) provide conditions under which the quadratic part of the program is fractionally symmetric , i.e. can be factorized

Furthermore, the paper touches on the fact that some kernelized learning algorithms can benefit from lifted solvers and an approximate lifting procedures when no strict lifting partition exists.

It is rather hard to read for somebody not an expert in lifted inference. While all formal criteria for presentation are fulfilled, more intuition for the subject matter could be given. The contributions of the paper are hard to grasp and more on the theoretical side (lifting partitions for convex programs can be “computed via packages such as Saucy”). While deepening the theoretical understanding a bit, it is unclear wether this paper will have a strong effect on the development of the theory of lifted inference. Even the authors seem to think that it will not have strong practical implications.

In general I wonder wether lifted inference really isn’t just an automatic way of finding simpler, equivalent models, rather than an inference technique per se.