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Sticking the Landing: Simple, Lower-Variance Gradient Estimators for Variational Inference

Neural Information Processing Systems

We propose a simple and general variant of the standard reparameterized gradient estimator for the variational evidence lower bound. Specifically, we remove a part of the total derivative with respect to the variational parameters that corresponds to the score function. Removing this term produces an unbiased gradient estimator whose variance approaches zero as the approximate posterior approaches the exact posterior. We analyze the behavior of this gradient estimator theoretically and empirically, and generalize it to more complex variational distributions such as mixtures and importance-weighted posteriors. Papers published at the Neural Information Processing Systems Conference.


Variance reduction properties of the reparameterization trick

arXiv.org Machine Learning

The reparameterization trick is widely used in variational inference as it yields more accurate estimates of the gradient of the variational objective than alternative approaches such as the score function method. Although there is overwhelming empirical evidence in the literature showing its success, there is relatively little research exploring why the reparameterization trick is so effective. We explore this under the idealized assumptions that the variational approximation is a mean-field Gaussian density and that the log of the joint density of the model parameters and the data is a quadratic function that depends on the variational mean. From this, we show that the marginal variances of the reparameterization gradient estimator are smaller than those of the score function gradient estimator. We apply the result of our idealized analysis to real-world examples.


Multi-level Monte Carlo Variational Inference

arXiv.org Machine Learning

In many statistics and machine learning frameworks, stochastic optimization with high variance gradients has become an important problem. For example, the performance of Monte Carlo variational inference (MCVI) seriously depends on the variance of its stochastic gradient estimator. In this paper, we focused on this problem and proposed a novel framework of variance reduction using multi-level Monte Carlo (MLMC) method. The framework is naturally compatible with reparameterization gradient estimators, which are one of the efficient variance reduction techniques that use the reparameterization trick. We also proposed a novel MCVI algorithm for stochastic gradient estimation on MLMC method in which sample size $N$ is adaptively estimated according to the ratio of the variance and computational cost for each iteration. We furthermore proved that, in our method, the norm of the gradient could converge to $0$ asymptotically. Finally, we evaluated our method by comparing it with benchmark methods in several experiments and showed that our method was able to reduce gradient variance and sampling cost efficiently and be closer to the optimum value than the other methods were.


Generalized Doubly Reparameterized Gradient Estimators

arXiv.org Machine Learning

Efficient low-variance gradient estimation enabled by the reparameterization trick (RT) has been essential to the success of variational autoencoders. Doubly-reparameterized gradients (DReGs) improve on the RT for multi-sample variational bounds by applying reparameterization a second time for an additional reduction in variance. Here, we develop two generalizations of the DReGs estimator and show that they can be used to train conditional and hierarchical VAEs on image modelling tasks more effectively. First, we extend the estimator to hierarchical models with several stochastic layers by showing how to treat additional score function terms due to the hierarchical variational posterior. We then generalize DReGs to score functions of arbitrary distributions instead of just those of the sampling distribution, which makes the estimator applicable to the parameters of the prior in addition to those of the posterior.


ARSM: Augment-REINFORCE-Swap-Merge Estimator for Gradient Backpropagation Through Categorical Variables

arXiv.org Machine Learning

To address the challenge of backpropagating the gradient through categorical variables, we propose the augment-REINFORCE-swap-merge (ARSM) gradient estimator that is unbiased and has low variance. ARSM first uses variable augmentation, REINFORCE, and Rao-Blackwellization to re-express the gradient as an expectation under the Dirichlet distribution, then uses variable swapping to construct differently expressed but equivalent expectations, and finally shares common random numbers between these expectations to achieve significant variance reduction. Experimental results show ARSM closely resembles the performance of the true gradient for optimization in univariate settings; outperforms existing estimators by a large margin when applied to categorical variational auto-encoders; and provides a "try-and-see self-critic" variance reduction method for discrete-action policy gradient, which removes the need of estimating baselines by generating a random number of pseudo actions and estimating their action-value functions.