Estimating the Mixing Time of Ergodic Markov Chains

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Geoffrey Wolfer, Aryeh Kontorovich ;
Proceedings of the Thirty-Second Conference on Learning Theory, PMLR 99:3120-3159, 2019.

Abstract

We address the problem of estimating the mixing time $t_{\mathsf{mix}}$ of an arbitrary ergodic finite Markov chain from a single trajectory of length $m$. The reversible case was addressed by Hsu et al. [2018+], who left the general case as an open problem. In the reversible case, the analysis is greatly facilitated by the fact that the Markov operator is self-adjoint, and Weyl’s inequality allows for a dimension-free perturbation analysis of the empirical eigenvalues. As Hsu et al. point out, in the absence of reversibility (and hence, the non-symmetry of the pair probabilities matrix), the existing perturbation analysis has a worst-case exponential dependence on the number of states $d$. Furthermore, even if an eigenvalue perturbation analysis with better dependence on $d$ were available, in the non-reversible case the connection between the spectral gap and the mixing time is not nearly as straightforward as in the reversible case. Our key insight is to estimate the pseudo-spectral gap instead, which allows us to overcome the loss of self-adjointness and to achieve a polynomial dependence on $d$ and the minimal stationary probability $\pi_\star$. Additionally, in the reversible case, we obtain simultaneous nearly (up to logarithmic factors) minimax rates in $t_{\mathsf{mix}}$ and precision $\varepsilon$, closing a gap in Hsu et al., who treated $\varepsilon$ as constant in the lower bounds. Finally, we construct fully empirical confidence intervals for the pseudo-spectral gap, which shrink to zero at a rate of roughly $1/\sqrt m$, and improve the state of the art in even the reversible case.

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