Latent variable models have become a key tool for the modern statistician, letting us express complex assumptions about the hidden structures that underlie our data. Latent variable models have been successfully applied in numerous fields including natural language processing, computer vision, electronic medical records, genetics, neuroscience, astronomy, political science, sociology, the digital humanities, and many others.

The central computational problem in latent variable modeling is posterior inference, the problem of approximating the conditional distribution of the latent variables given the observations. Posterior inference is central to both exploratory tasks, where we investigate hidden structures that underlie our data, and predictive tasks, where we use the inferred structures to generalize about future data. Approximate posterior inference algorithms have revolutionized Bayesian statistics, revealing its potential as a usable and general-purpose language for data analysis.

Bayesian statistics, however, has not yet reached this potential. First, statisticians and scientists regularly encounter massive data sets, but existing approximate inference algorithms do not scale well. Second, most approximate inference algorithms are not generic; each must be adapted to the specific model at hand. This often requires significant model-specific analysis, which precludes us from easily exploring a variety of models.

In this talk I will discuss our recent research on addressing these two limitations. First I will describe stochastic variational inference, an approximate inference algorithm for handling massive data sets. Stochastic inference is easily applied to a large class of Bayesian models, including time-series models, factor models, and Bayesian nonparametric models. I will demonstrate its application to probabilistic topic models of text conditioned on millions of articles. Stochastic inference opens the door to scalable Bayesian computation for modern data analysis.

Then I will discuss black box variational inference. Black box inference is a generic algorithm for approximating the posterior. We can easily apply it to many models with little model-specific derivation and few restrictions on their properties. Black box inference performs better than similarly generic sampling algorithms, such as Metropolis-Hastings inside Gibbs, and can be composed with stochastic inference to handle massive data. I will demonstrate its use on a suite of nonconjugate models of longitudinal healthcare data.

This is joint work based on these two papers:

M. Hoffman, D. Blei, J. Paisley, and C. Wang. Stochastic variational inference. Journal of Machine Learning Research, 14:1303-1347.

R. Ranganath and D. Blei. Black box variational inference. Artificial Intelligence and Statistics, 2014.