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Marginalization is not Marginal: No Bad VAE Local Minima when Learning Optimal Sparse Representations

David Wipf

Meeting Room 316 A-C


Although the variational autoencoder (VAE) represents a widely-used deep generative model, the underlying energy function when applied to continuous data remains poorly understood. In fact, most prior theoretical analysis has assumed a simplified affine decoder such that the model collapses to probabilistic PCA, a restricted regime whereby existing classical algorithms can also be trivially applied to guarantee globally optimal solutions. To push our understanding into more complex, practically-relevant settings, this paper instead adopts a deceptively sophisticated single-layer decoder that nonetheless allows the VAE to address the fundamental challenge of learning optimally sparse representations of continuous data originating from popular multiple-response regression models. In doing so, we can then examine VAE properties within the non-trivial context of solving difficult, NP-hard inverse problems. More specifically, we prove rigorous conditions which guarantee that any minimum of the VAE energy (local or global) will produce the optimally sparse latent representation, meaning zero reconstruction error using a minimal number of active latent dimensions. This is ultimately possible because VAE marginalization over the latent posterior selectively smooths away bad local minima as has been conjectured but not actually proven in prior work. We then discuss how equivalent-capacity deterministic autoencoders, even with appropriate sparsity-promoting regularization of the latent space, maintain bad local minima that do not correspond with such parsimonious representations. Overall, these results serve to elucidate key properties of the VAE loss surface relative to finding low-dimensional structure in data.

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