The Broad Optimality of Profile Maximum Likelihood

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 32 (NeurIPS 2019)

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Yi Hao, Alon Orlitsky


We study three fundamental statistical-learning problems: distribution estimation, property estimation, and property testing. We establish the profile maximum likelihood (PML) estimator as the first unified sample-optimal approach to a wide range of learning tasks. In particular, for every alphabet size $k$ and desired accuracy $\varepsilon$: \textbf{Distribution estimation} Under $\ell_1$ distance, PML yields optimal $\Theta(k/(\varepsilon^2\log k))$ sample complexity for sorted-distribution estimation, and a PML-based estimator empirically outperforms the Good-Turing estimator on the actual distribution; \textbf{Additive property estimation} For a broad class of additive properties, the PML plug-in estimator uses just four times the sample size required by the best estimator to achieve roughly twice its error, with exponentially higher confidence; \textbf{$\alpha$-R\'enyi entropy estimation} For an integer $\alpha>1$, the PML plug-in estimator has optimal $k^{1-1/\alpha}$ sample complexity; for non-integer $\alpha>3/4$, the PML plug-in estimator has sample complexity lower than the state of the art; \textbf{Identity testing} In testing whether an unknown distribution is equal to or at least $\varepsilon$ far from a given distribution in $\ell_1$ distance, a PML-based tester achieves the optimal sample complexity up to logarithmic factors of $k$. With minor modifications, most of these results also hold for a near-linear-time computable variant of PML.