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# Automatic variational inference with cascading flows

*Proceedings of the 38th International Conference on Machine Learning*, PMLR 139:254-263, 2021.

#### Abstract

The automation of probabilistic reasoning is one of the primary aims of machine learning. Recently, the confluence of variational inference and deep learning has led to powerful and flexible automatic inference methods that can be trained by stochastic gradient descent. In particular, normalizing flows are highly parameterized deep models that can fit arbitrarily complex posterior densities. However, normalizing flows struggle in highly structured probabilistic programs as they need to relearn the forward-pass of the program. Automatic structured variational inference (ASVI) remedies this problem by constructing variational programs that embed the forward-pass. Here, we combine the flexibility of normalizing flows and the prior-embedding property of ASVI in a new family of variational programs, which we named cascading flows. A cascading flows program interposes a newly designed highway flow architecture in between the conditional distributions of the prior program such as to steer it toward the observed data. These programs can be constructed automatically from an input probabilistic program and can also be amortized automatically. We evaluate the performance of the new variational programs in a series of structured inference problems. We find that cascading flows have much higher performance than both normalizing flows and ASVI in a large set of structured inference problems.