Outlier-Robust Sparse Mean Estimation for Heavy-Tailed Distributions

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 35 (NeurIPS 2022) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Ilias Diakonikolas, Daniel Kane, Jasper Lee, Ankit Pensia


We study the fundamental task of outlier-robust mean estimation for heavy-tailed distributions in the presence of sparsity. Specifically, given a small number of corrupted samples from a high-dimensional heavy-tailed distribution whose mean $\mu$ is guaranteed to be sparse, the goal is to efficiently compute a hypothesis that accurately approximates $\mu$ with high probability. Prior work had obtained efficient algorithms for robust sparse mean estimation of light-tailed distributions. In this work, we give the first sample-efficient and polynomial-time robust sparse mean estimator for heavy-tailed distributions under mild moment assumptions. Our algorithm achieves the optimal asymptotic error using a number of samples scaling logarithmically with the ambient dimension. Importantly, the sample complexity of our method is optimal as a function of the failure probability $\tau$, having an {\em additive} $\log(1/\tau)$ dependence. Our algorithm leverages the stability-based approach from the algorithmic robust statistics literature, with crucial (and necessary) adaptations required in our setting. Our analysis may be of independent interest, involving the delicate design of a (non-spectral) decomposition for positive semi-definite matrices satisfying certain sparsity properties.