Keywords: probabilistic programming, inference, Monte Carlo, variational inference, auxiliary variables
TL;DR: RAVI is a framework for Monte Carlo and variational inference with flexible proposal distributions whose densities cannot be evaluated exactly
Abstract: A key design constraint when implementing Monte Carlo and variational inference algorithms is that it must be possible to cheaply and exactly evaluate the marginal densities of proposal distributions and variational families. This takes many interesting proposals off the table, such as those based on involved simulations or stochastic optimization. This paper broadens the design space, by presenting a framework for applying Monte Carlo and variational inference algorithms when proposal densities cannot be exactly evaluated. Our framework, recursive auxiliary-variable inference (RAVI), instead approximates the necessary densities using meta-inference: an additional layer of Monte Carlo or variational inference, that targets the proposal, rather than the model. RAVI generalizes and uniﬁes several existing methods for inference with expressive approximating families, which we show correspond to speciﬁc choices of meta-inference algorithm, and provides new theory for analyzing their bias and variance. We illustrate RAVI’s design framework and theorems by using them to analyze and improve upon Salimans et al.’s Markov Chain Variational Inference, and to design a novel sampler for Dirichlet process mixtures, achieving state-of-the-art results on a standard benchmark dataset from astronomy and on a challenging datacleaning task with Medicare hospital data.
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