A Probabilistic Programming Approach To Probabilistic Data Analysis

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 29 (NIPS 2016)

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Feras Saad, Vikash K. Mansinghka


Probabilistic techniques are central to data analysis, but different approaches can be challenging to apply, combine, and compare. This paper introduces composable generative population models (CGPMs), a computational abstraction that extends directed graphical models and can be used to describe and compose a broad class of probabilistic data analysis techniques. Examples include discriminative machine learning, hierarchical Bayesian models, multivariate kernel methods, clustering algorithms, and arbitrary probabilistic programs. We demonstrate the integration of CGPMs into BayesDB, a probabilistic programming platform that can express data analysis tasks using a modeling definition language and structured query language. The practical value is illustrated in two ways. First, the paper describes an analysis on a database of Earth satellites, which identifies records that probably violate Kepler’s Third Law by composing causal probabilistic programs with non-parametric Bayes in 50 lines of probabilistic code. Second, it reports the lines of code and accuracy of CGPMs compared with baseline solutions from standard machine learning libraries.