Keywords: Bayesian phylogenetic inference, Variational inference, Subsplit Bayesian networks
TL;DR: The first variational Bayes formulation of phylogenetic inference, a challenging inference problem over structures with intertwined discrete and continuous components
Abstract: Bayesian phylogenetic inference is currently done via Markov chain Monte Carlo with simple mechanisms for proposing new states, which hinders exploration efficiency and often requires long runs to deliver accurate posterior estimates. In this paper we present an alternative approach: a variational framework for Bayesian phylogenetic analysis. We approximate the true posterior using an expressive graphical model for tree distributions, called a subsplit Bayesian network, together with appropriate branch length distributions. We train the variational approximation via stochastic gradient ascent and adopt multi-sample based gradient estimators for different latent variables separately to handle the composite latent space of phylogenetic models. We show that our structured variational approximations are flexible enough to provide comparable posterior estimation to MCMC, while requiring less computation due to a more efficient tree exploration mechanism enabled by variational inference. Moreover, the variational approximations can be readily used for further statistical analysis such as marginal likelihood estimation for model comparison via importance sampling. Experiments on both synthetic data and real data Bayesian phylogenetic inference problems demonstrate the effectiveness and efficiency of our methods.