Learning discrete distributions with infinite support

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 33 (NeurIPS 2020)

AuthorFeedback Bibtex MetaReview Paper Review Supplemental


Doron Cohen, Aryeh Kontorovich, Geoffrey Wolfer


We present a novel approach to estimating discrete distributions with (potentially) infinite support in the total variation metric. In a departure from the established paradigm, we make no structural assumptions whatsoever on the sampling distribution. In such a setting, distribution-free risk bounds are impossible, and the best one could hope for is a fully empirical data-dependent bound. We derive precisely such bounds, and demonstrate that these are, in a well-defined sense, the best possible. Our main discovery is that the half-norm of the empirical distribution provides tight upper and lower estimates on the empirical risk. Furthermore, this quantity decays at a nearly optimal rate as a function of the true distribution. The optimality follows from a minimax result, of possible independent interest. Additional structural results are provided, including an exact Rademacher complexity calculation and apparently a first connection between the total variation risk and the missing mass.