Coupled Gradient Estimators for Discrete Latent Variables

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 (NeurIPS 2021)

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Zhe Dong, Andriy Mnih, George Tucker


Training models with discrete latent variables is challenging due to the high variance of unbiased gradient estimators. While low-variance reparameterization gradients of a continuous relaxation can provide an effective solution, a continuous relaxation is not always available or tractable. Dong et al. (2020) and Yin et al. (2020) introduced a performant estimator that does not rely on continuous relaxations; however, it is limited to binary random variables. We introduce a novel derivation of their estimator based on importance sampling and statistical couplings, which we extend to the categorical setting. Motivated by the construction of a stick-breaking coupling, we introduce gradient estimators based on reparameterizing categorical variables as sequences of binary variables and Rao-Blackwellization. In systematic experiments, we show that our proposed categorical gradient estimators provide state-of-the-art performance, whereas even with additional Rao-Blackwellization previous estimators (Yin et al., 2019) underperform a simpler REINFORCE with a leave-one-out-baseline estimator (Kool et al., 2019).