*“Stochastic Variational inference is an appealing alternative to the inefficient sampling approaches commonly used in ABC.”*

Moreno et al. [including Ted Meeds and Max Welling] recently arXived a paper merging variational inference and ABC. The argument for turning variational is computational speedup. The traditional (in variational inference) divergence decomposition of the log-marginal likelihood is replaced by an ABC version, parameterised in terms of intrinsic generators (i.e., generators that do not depend on cyber-parameters, like the U(0,1) or the N(0,1) generators). Or simulation code in the authors’ terms. Which leads to the automatic aspect of the approach. In the paper the derivation of the gradient is indeed automated.

*“One issue is that even assuming that the ABC likelihood is an unbiased estimator of the true likelihood (which it is not), taking the log introduces a bias, so that we now have a biased estimate of the lower bound and thus biased gradients.”*

I wonder how much of an issue this is, since we consider the variational lower bound. To be optimised in terms of the parameters of the variational posterior. Indeed, the endpoint of the analysis is to provide an optimal variational approximation, which remains an approximation whether or not the likelihood estimator is unbiased. A more “severe” limitation may be in the inversion constraint, since it seems to eliminate Beta or Gamma distributions. (Even though calling qbeta(runif(1),a,b) definitely is achievable… And not rejected by a Kolmogorov-Smirnov test.)

Incidentally, I discovered through the paper the existence of the Kumaraswamy distribution, which main appeal seems to be the ability to produce a closed-form quantile function, while bearing some resemblance with the Beta distribution. (Another arXival by Baltasar Trancón y Widemann studies some connections between those, but does not tell how to select the parameters to optimise the similarity.)

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