Variational Bayesian Monte Carlo

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 31 (NeurIPS 2018)

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Luigi Acerbi


Many probabilistic models of interest in scientific computing and machine learning have expensive, black-box likelihoods that prevent the application of standard techniques for Bayesian inference, such as MCMC, which would require access to the gradient or a large number of likelihood evaluations. We introduce here a novel sample-efficient inference framework, Variational Bayesian Monte Carlo (VBMC). VBMC combines variational inference with Gaussian-process based, active-sampling Bayesian quadrature, using the latter to efficiently approximate the intractable integral in the variational objective. Our method produces both a nonparametric approximation of the posterior distribution and an approximate lower bound of the model evidence, useful for model selection. We demonstrate VBMC both on several synthetic likelihoods and on a neuronal model with data from real neurons. Across all tested problems and dimensions (up to D = 10), VBMC performs consistently well in reconstructing the posterior and the model evidence with a limited budget of likelihood evaluations, unlike other methods that work only in very low dimensions. Our framework shows great promise as a novel tool for posterior and model inference with expensive, black-box likelihoods.