Stochastic conditioning

Probabilistic programs implement statistical models. Commonly, probabilistic programs follow the Bayesian generative pattern:

\begin{equation} \begin{aligned} x & \sim \mathrm{Prior} \\
y & \sim \mathrm{Conditional}(x) \end{aligned} \end{equation}

  • A prior is imposed on the latent variable $x$.
  • Then, observations $y$ are drawn from a distribution conditioned on $x$.

The program and the observations are passed to an inference algorithm which infers the posterior of latent variable $x$.

The questions is: what is observed?

In a basic, familiar, setting, samples from the joint data distribution are observed. However, it is also possible that the observations are

  • samples from marginal distributions;
  • summary statistics;
  • and even the data distribution as a lazy infinite sampler.

These cases frequently arise in real-life scenarios. Consider, for example

  • an anonymized clinical study in a hospital, where patients bearing a particular disease are monitored, but only summary statistics of each symptom are reported, to preserve patients' privacy;

  • or the famous ‘canadian traveller’ problem, where the traveller plans a road trip, but some roads can be closed due to bad weather, so the model must be conditioned on the distribution of possible road closure combinations.

Existing probabilistic programming frameworks cannot represent such cases straighforwardly.

To address this problem, we propose to generalize deterministic conditioning $x|y=y_0$ on values to stochastic conditioning $x|y \sim D_0$ on distributions.

Formally, a probabilistic program with stochastic conditioning is a tuple $(p(x, y), D)$, consisting of

  • the computation $p(x, y) = p(x)p(y|x)$ of joint probability of assignments to x and y,
  • and the observed distribution of D, with density $q(y)$.

We aim to infer $p(x|y \sim D)$, the distribution of x given y distributed as D. For that we need (unnormalized)

$$p(x, y \sim D) = p(x)p(y \sim D|x)$$

However, the model computes the joint probability $p(x, y)$ of x and y rather than of x and D. We need to express the conditional probability of D given x in terms of y given x, and D. Thus, we define the former in terms of the latter:

$$p(y \sim D|x) \propto \exp \left( \int_Y (\log p(y|x)),q(y)dy \right)=\prod\nolimits_Y p(y|x)^{q(y)dy}$$

The probability of y distributed as D given x is the integral of log probability of y given x over D, exponentiated. Intuitively, this can be interperted as the product probability of all values of y given x, according to their observation probabilities.

Inference algorithms for deterministic conditioning cannot be directly applied to programs with stochastic conditioning. In principle, nested Monte Carlo estimation can be used, but it is slow and cumbersome to code.

However, with our definition of conditional probability an unbiased Monte Carlo estimate of log probability is available:

$$\log p(y \sim D|x) \approx \frac 1 N \sum\nolimits_{i=1}^N \log p(y_i|x)$$

This estimate is similar to the estimate used for subsampling of tall data. So, submsampling algorithms, such as

  • pseudo-marginal MH;
  • stochastic gradient MCMC;
  • stochastic VI

can be used, with little modification.

We demonstrate stochastic conditioning in action on a case study based on Donald Rubin’s paper from 1983. The task is to estimate the total population fo New York state (804 municipalities) based on a sample of 100 municipalities (two samples are considered):

Population (N=804) Sample 1 (n=100) Sample 2 (n=100)
total 13,776,663 1,966,745 3,850,502
mean 17,135 19,667 38,505
sd 139,147 142,218 228,625
lowest 19 164 162
5% 336 308 315
25% 800 891 863
median 1,668 2,081 1,740
75% 5,050 6,049 5,239
95% 30,295 25,130 41,718
highest 2,627,319 1,424,815 1809578

The original study had access to populations of each of the 100 municipalities in the sample, but the paper reports only the summary statistics — the mean, the standard deviation, and the quantiles. Can we still perform inference?

It turns out we can, we stochastic conditioning, and here is the model:

\begin{align} & y_{1\ldots n} \sim \mathit{Quantiles} \\
& ————————— \\
& m \sim \mathrm{Normal}\left(\mathit{mean}, {\mathit{sd}}/ {\sqrt n}\right) \\
&\log s^2\sim\mathrm{Uniform}(-\infty,\infty) \\
& \\
& \sigma = \sqrt{\log \left(s^2/m^2 + 1\right)} \\
& \mu = \log m - {\sigma^2} / 2 \\
& \\
& y_{1\ldots n}\vert m,s^2 \sim \mathrm{LogNormal}(\mu, \sigma) \end{align}

Below the rule, we define a model as though the populations of each municipality were observed. We impose a prior on the parameters, and then observe the populations from log-Normal distribution. However, instead of passing fixed observations of populations, we observe, through samples, a piecewise uniform quantile distribution (above the rule). The model is differentiable, so we can use stochastic gradient Markov Chain Monte Carlo for inference.


In the posterior, the 95% compatibility intervals (solid rectangles) for each of the two samples cover the true total (red vertical line) and are even tighter than reported by Rubin (using power-transformed normal), despite being based on less information.

The paper gives rigorous theoretical threatment of stochastic conditioning, along with intuitive explanations on didactic examples, and several elaborated case studies. The case studies are implemented using Infergo, a probabilistic programming framework for Go, and are available in a public git repository.