A Heavy-Tailed Algebra for Probabilistic Programming

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Feynman T. Liang, Liam Hodgkinson, Michael W. Mahoney


Despite the successes of probabilistic models based on passing noise through neural networks, recent work has identified that such methods often fail to capture tail behavior accurately---unless the tails of the base distribution are appropriately calibrated. To overcome this deficiency, we propose a systematic approach for analyzing the tails of random variables, and we illustrate how this approach can be used during the static analysis (before drawing samples) pass of a probabilistic programming language (PPL) compiler. To characterize how the tails change under various operations, we develop an algebra which acts on a three-parameter family of tail asymptotics and which is based on the generalized Gamma distribution. Our algebraic operations are closed under addition and multiplication; they are capable of distinguishing sub-Gaussians with differing scales; and they handle ratios sufficiently well to reproduce the tails of most important statistical distributions directly from their definitions. Our empirical results confirm that inference algorithms that leverage our heavy-tailed algebra attain superior performance across a number of density modeling and variational inference (VI) tasks.