Small-Variance Asymptotics for Hidden Markov Models

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 26 (NIPS 2013)

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Anirban Roychowdhury, Ke Jiang, Brian Kulis


Small-variance asymptotics provide an emerging technique for obtaining scalable combinatorial algorithms from rich probabilistic models. We present a small-variance asymptotic analysis of the Hidden Markov Model and its infinite-state Bayesian nonparametric extension. Starting with the standard HMM, we first derive a “hard” inference algorithm analogous to k-means that arises when particular variances in the model tend to zero. This analysis is then extended to the Bayesian nonparametric case, yielding a simple, scalable, and flexible algorithm for discrete-state sequence data with a non-fixed number of states. We also derive the corresponding combinatorial objective functions arising from our analysis, which involve a k-means-like term along with penalties based on state transitions and the number of states. A key property of such algorithms is that — particularly in the nonparametric setting — standard probabilistic inference algorithms lack scalability and are heavily dependent on good initialization. A number of results on synthetic and real data sets demonstrate the advantages of the proposed framework.