Sequential Algorithms for Testing Closeness of Distributions

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 (NeurIPS 2021)

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Aadil Oufkir, Omar Fawzi, Nicolas Flammarion, Aurélien Garivier


What advantage do sequential procedures provide over batch algorithms for testing properties of unknown distributions? Focusing on the problem of testing whether two distributions $\mathcal{D}_1$ and $\mathcal{D}_2$ on $\{1,\dots, n\}$ are equal or $\epsilon$-far, we give several answers to this question. We show that for a small alphabet size $n$, there is a sequential algorithm that outperforms any batch algorithm by a factor of at least $4$ in terms sample complexity. For a general alphabet size $n$, we give a sequential algorithm that uses no more samples than its batch counterpart, and possibly fewer if the actual distance between $\mathcal{D}_1$ and $\mathcal{D}_2$ is larger than $\epsilon$. As a corollary, letting $\epsilon$ go to $0$, we obtain a sequential algorithm for testing closeness (with no a priori bound on the distance between $\mathcal{D}_1$ and $\mathcal{D}_2$) with a sample complexity $\tilde{\mathcal{O}}(\frac{n^{2/3}}{TV(\mathcal{D}_1, \mathcal{D}_2)^{4/3}})$: this improves over the $\tilde{\mathcal{O}}(\frac{n/\log n}{TV(\mathcal{D}_1, \mathcal{D}_2)^{2} })$ tester of [Daskalakis and Kawase 2017] and is optimal up to multiplicative constants. We also establish limitations of sequential algorithms for the problem of testing closeness: they can improve the worst case number of samples by at most a constant factor.