Distributed Estimation, Information Loss and Exponential Families

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 27 (NIPS 2014)

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Qiang Liu, Alexander T. Ihler


Distributed learning of probabilistic models from multiple data repositories with minimum communication is increasingly important. We study a simple communication-efficient learning framework that first calculates the local maximum likelihood estimates (MLE) based on the data subsets, and then combines the local MLEs to achieve the best possible approximation to the global MLE, based on the whole dataset jointly. We study the statistical properties of this framework, showing that the loss of efficiency compared to the global setting relates to how much the underlying distribution families deviate from full exponential families, drawing connection to the theory of information loss by Fisher, Rao and Efron. We show that the full-exponential-family-ness" represents the lower bound of the error rate of arbitrary combinations of local MLEs, and is achieved by a KL-divergence-based combination method but not by a more common linear combination method. We also study the empirical properties of the KL and linear combination methods, showing that the KL method significantly outperforms linear combination in practical settings with issues such as model misspecification, non-convexity, and heterogeneous data partitions."