Challenges and Opportunities in High-dimensional Variational Inference


We explore the limitations of and best practices for using black-box variational inference to estimate posterior summaries of the model parameters. By taking an importance sampling perspective, we are able to explain and empirically demonstrate: 1) why the intuitions about the behavior of approximate families and divergences for low-dimensional posteriors fail for higher-dimensional posteriors, 2) how we can diagnose the pre-asymptotic reliability of variational inference in practice by examining the behavior of the density ratios (i.e., importance weights), 3) why the choice of variational objective is not as relevant for higher-dimensional posteriors, and 4) why, although flexible variational families can provide some benefits in higher dimensions, they also introduce additional optimization challenges. Based on these findings, for high-dimensional posteriors we recommend using the exclusive KL divergence that is most stable and easiest to optimize, and then focusing on improving the variational family or using model parameter transformations to make the posterior more similar to the approximating family. Our results also show that in low to moderate dimensions, heavy-tailed variational families and mass-covering divergences can increase the chances that the approximation can be improved by importance sampling.

arXiv:2103.01085 [cs.LG]