Asymptotically Exact, Embarrassingly Parallel MCMC
Willie Neiswanger, Chong Wang, and Eric Xing (from CMU) recently arXived a paper entitled as above. The “embarrassing” in the title refers to the “embarrassingly simple” solution proposed therein, namely to solve the difficulty in handling very large datasets by running completely independent parallel MCMC samplers on parallel threads or computers and using the outcomes of those samplers as density estimates, pulled together as a product towards an approximation of the true posterior density. In other words, the idea is to break the posterior as
and to use the estimate
where the individual estimates are obtained by, say, non-parametric estimates. The method is then “asymptotically exact” in the weak (and unsurprising) sense of being converging in the number of MCMC iterations. Still, there is a theoretical justification that is not found in previous parallel methods that mixed all resulting samples without accounting for the subsampling. And I also appreciate the point that, in many cases, running MCMC samplers with subsamples produces faster convergence.
In the paper, the division of p into its components is done by partitioning the iid data into m subsets. And taking a power 1/m of the prior in each case. (Which may induce improperness issues.) However, the subdivision is arbitrary and can thus be implemented in other cases than the fairly restrictive iid setting. Because each (subsample) non-parametric estimate involves T terms, the resulting overall estimate contains Tm terms and the authors suggest using an independent Metropolis-within-Gibbs sampler to handle this complexity. Which is necessary [took me a while to realise this!] for producing a final sample from the (approximate) true posterior distribution. As an aside, I wonder why the bandwidths are all equal across all subsamples, as they should depend on those. And as it would not make much of a difference. It would also be interesting to build a typology of cases where subsampling leads to subposteriors that are close to orthogonal, preventing the implementation of the method.
As it happened, I read this paper on the very day Nial Friel (University College Dublin) gave a seminar at the Big’MC seminar on the convergence of approximations to ergodic transition kernels, based on the recent results of Mitrophanov on the stability of Markov chains, where he introduced the topic by the case of datasets large enough to prevent the computation of the likelihood function.