Sparse Estimation Using General Likelihoods and Non-Factorial Priors[PDF] [BibTeX]
Finding maximally sparse representations from overcomplete feature dictionaries frequently involves minimizing a cost function composed of a likelihood (or data fit) term and a prior (or penalty function) that favors sparsity. While typically the prior is factorial, here we examine non-factorial alternatives that have a number of desirable properties relevant to sparse estimation and are easily implemented using an efficient, globally-convergent reweighted $\ell_1$ minimization procedure. The first method under consideration arises from the sparse Bayesian learning (SBL) framework. Although based on a highly non-convex underlying cost function, in the context of canonical sparse estimation problems, we prove uniform superiority of this method over the Lasso in that, (i) it can never do worse, and (ii) for any dictionary and sparsity profile, there will always exist cases where it does better. These results challenge the prevailing reliance on strictly convex penalty functions for finding sparse solutions. We then derive a new non-factorial variant with similar properties that exhibits further performance improvements in empirical tests. For both of these methods, as well as traditional factorial analogs, we demonstrate the effectiveness of reweighted $\ell_1$-norm algorithms in handling more general sparse estimation problems involving classification, group feature selection, and non-negativity constraints. As a byproduct of this development, a rigorous reformulation of sparse Bayesian classification (e.g., the relevance vector machine) is derived that, unlike the original, involves no approximation steps and descends a well-defined objective function.