Flexible mean field variational inference using mixtures of non-overlapping exponential families

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

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Jeffrey Spence


Sparse models are desirable for many applications across diverse domains as they can perform automatic variable selection, aid interpretability, and provide regularization. When fitting sparse models in a Bayesian framework, however, analytically obtaining a posterior distribution over the parameters of interest is intractable for all but the simplest cases. As a result practitioners must rely on either sampling algorithms such as Markov chain Monte Carlo or variational methods to obtain an approximate posterior. Mean field variational inference is a particularly simple and popular framework that is often amenable to analytically deriving closed-form parameter updates. When all distributions in the model are members of exponential families and are conditionally conjugate, optimization schemes can often be derived by hand. Yet, I show that using standard mean field variational inference can fail to produce sensible results for models with sparsity-inducing priors, such as the spike-and-slab. Fortunately, such pathological behavior can be remedied as I show that mixtures of exponential family distributions with non-overlapping support form an exponential family. In particular, any mixture of an exponential family of diffuse distributions and a point mass at zero to model sparsity forms an exponential family. Furthermore, specific choices of these distributions maintain conditional conjugacy. I use two applications to motivate these results: one from statistical genetics that has connections to generalized least squares with a spike-and-slab prior on the regression coefficients; and sparse probabilistic principal component analysis. The theoretical results presented here are broadly applicable beyond these two examples.