Variational Consensus Monte Carlo

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 28 (NIPS 2015)

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Maxim Rabinovich, Elaine Angelino, Michael I. Jordan


Practitioners of Bayesian statistics have long depended on Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) to obtain samples from intractable posterior distributions. Unfortunately, MCMC algorithms are typically serial, and do not scale to the large datasets typical of modern machine learning. The recently proposed consensus Monte Carlo algorithm removes this limitation by partitioning the data and drawing samples conditional on each partition in parallel (Scott et al, 2013). A fixed aggregation function then combines these samples, yielding approximate posterior samples. We introduce variational consensus Monte Carlo (VCMC), a variational Bayes algorithm that optimizes over aggregation functions to obtain samples from a distribution that better approximates the target. The resulting objective contains an intractable entropy term; we therefore derive a relaxation of the objective and show that the relaxed problem is blockwise concave under mild conditions. We illustrate the advantages of our algorithm on three inference tasks from the literature, demonstrating both the superior quality of the posterior approximation and the moderate overhead of the optimization step. Our algorithm achieves a relative error reduction (measured against serial MCMC) of up to 39% compared to consensus Monte Carlo on the task of estimating 300-dimensional probit regression parameter expectations; similarly, it achieves an error reduction of 92% on the task of estimating cluster comembership probabilities in a Gaussian mixture model with 8 components in 8 dimensions. Furthermore, these gains come at moderate cost compared to the runtime of serial MCMC, achieving near-ideal speedup in some instances.