Exploring the Latent Space of Autoencoders with Interventional Assays

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

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Felix Leeb, Stefan Bauer, Michel Besserve, Bernhard Schölkopf


Autoencoders exhibit impressive abilities to embed the data manifold into a low-dimensional latent space, making them a staple of representation learning methods. However, without explicit supervision, which is often unavailable, the representation is usually uninterpretable, making analysis and principled progress challenging. We propose a framework, called latent responses, which exploits the locally contractive behavior exhibited by variational autoencoders to explore the learned manifold. More specifically, we develop tools to probe the representation using interventions in the latent space to quantify the relationships between latent variables. We extend the notion of disentanglement to take the learned generative process into account and consequently avoid the limitations of existing metrics that may rely on spurious correlations. Our analyses underscore the importance of studying the causal structure of the representation to improve performance on downstream tasks such as generation, interpolation, and inference of the factors of variation.