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An Introduction to Probabilistic Programming

arXiv.org Artificial Intelligence

This document is designed to be a first-year graduate-level introduction to probabilistic programming. It not only provides a thorough background for anyone wishing to use a probabilistic programming system, but also introduces the techniques needed to design and build these systems. It is aimed at people who have an undergraduate-level understanding of either or, ideally, both probabilistic machine learning and programming languages. We start with a discussion of model-based reasoning and explain why conditioning as a foundational computation is central to the fields of probabilistic machine learning and artificial intelligence. We then introduce a simple first-order probabilistic programming language (PPL) whose programs define static-computation-graph, finite-variable-cardinality models. In the context of this restricted PPL we introduce fundamental inference algorithms and describe how they can be implemented in the context of models denoted by probabilistic programs. In the second part of this document, we introduce a higher-order probabilistic programming language, with a functionality analogous to that of established programming languages. This affords the opportunity to define models with dynamic computation graphs, at the cost of requiring inference methods that generate samples by repeatedly executing the program. Foundational inference algorithms for this kind of probabilistic programming language are explained in the context of an interface between program executions and an inference controller. This document closes with a chapter on advanced topics which we believe to be, at the time of writing, interesting directions for probabilistic programming research; directions that point towards a tight integration with deep neural network research and the development of systems for next-generation artificial intelligence applications.


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Automated learning with a probabilistic programming language: Birch

arXiv.org Machine Learning

This work offers a broad perspective on probabilistic modeling and inference in light of recent advances in probabilistic programming, in which models are formally expressed in Turing-complete programming languages. We consider a typical workflow and how probabilistic programming languages can help to automate this workflow, especially in the matching of models with inference methods. We focus on two properties of a model that are critical in this matching: its structure---the conditional dependencies between random variables---and its form---the precise mathematical definition of those dependencies. While the structure and form of a probabilistic model are often fixed a priori, it is a curiosity of probabilistic programming that they need not be, and may instead vary according to random choices made during program execution. We introduce a formal description of models expressed as programs, and discuss some of the ways in which probabilistic programming languages can reveal the structure and form of these, in order to tailor inference methods. We demonstrate the ideas with a new probabilistic programming language called Birch, with a multiple object tracking example.