Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 33 (NeurIPS 2020)
Yonghan Jung, Jin Tian, Elias Bareinboim
Learning causal effects from data is a fundamental problem across the sciences. Determining the identifiability of a target effect from a combination of the observational distribution and the causal graph underlying a phenomenon is well-understood in theory. However, in practice, it remains a challenge to apply the identification theory to estimate the identified causal functionals from finite samples. Although a plethora of effective estimators have been developed under the setting known as the back-door (also called conditional ignorability), there exists still no systematic way of estimating arbitrary causal functionals that are both computationally and statistically attractive. This paper aims to bridge this gap, from causal identification to causal estimation. We note that estimating functionals from limited samples based on the empirical risk minimization (ERM) principle has been pervasive in the machine learning literature, and these methods have been extended to causal inference under the back-door setting. In this paper, we develop a learning framework that marries two families of methods, benefiting from the generality of the causal identification theory and the effectiveness of the estimators produced based on the principle of ERM. Specifically, we develop a sound and complete algorithm that generates causal functionals in the form of weighted distributions that are amenable to the ERM optimization. We then provide a practical procedure for learning causal effects from finite samples and a causal graph. Finally, experimental results support the effectiveness of our approach.