Keywords: VAE, hierarchical VAE, rate distortion theory, information theory
TL;DR: We generalize the rate/distortion theory of VAEs and analyze both theoeretically and analytically how manipulating each individual layer's rate affects performance.
Abstract: Variational Autoencoders (VAEs) were originally motivated as probabilistic generative models in which one performs approximate Bayesian inference. The proposal of $\beta$-VAEs breaks this interpretation and generalizes VAEs to application domains beyond generative modeling (e.g., representation learning, clustering, or lossy data compression) by introducing an objective function that allows practitioners to trade off between the information content ("bit rate") of the latent representation and the distortion of reconstructed data. In this paper, we reconsider this rate/distortion trade-off in the context of hierarchical VAEs, i.e., VAEs with more than one layer of latent variables. We propose a method to control each layer's contribution to the rate independently. We identify the most general class of inference models to which our proposed method is applicable, and we derive theoretical bounds on the performance of downstream tasks as functions of the individual layers' rates. Our experiments demonstrate that the proposed method allows us to better tune hierarchical VAEs for a diverse set of practical use cases.
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