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One of the core problems of modern statistics is to approximate difficult-to-compute probability densities. This problem is especially important in Bayesian statistics, which frames all inference about unknown quantities as a calculation involving the posterior density. In this paper, we review variational inference (VI), a method from machine learning that approximates probability densities through optimization. VI has been used in many applications and tends to be faster than classical methods, such as Markov chain Monte Carlo sampling. The idea behind VI is to first posit a family of densities and then to find the member of that family which is close to the target. Closeness is measured by Kullback-Leibler divergence. We review the ideas behind mean-field variational inference, discuss the special case of VI applied to exponential family models, present a full example with a Bayesian mixture of Gaussians, and derive a variant that uses stochastic optimization to scale up to massive data. We discuss modern research in VI and highlight important open problems. VI is powerful, but it is not yet well understood. Our hope in writing this paper is to catalyze statistical research on this class of algorithms.

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During the past decade, several areas of speech and language understanding have witnessed substantial breakthroughs from the use of data-driven models. In the area of dialogue systems, the trend is less obvious, and most practical systems are still built through significant engineering and expert knowledge. Nevertheless, several recent results suggest that data-driven approaches are feasible and quite promising. To facilitate research in this area, we have carried out a wide survey of publicly available datasets suitable for data-driven learning of dialogue systems. We discuss important characteristics of these datasets, how they can be used to learn diverse dialogue strategies, and their other potential uses. We also examine methods for transfer learning between datasets and the use of external knowledge. Finally, we discuss appropriate choice of evaluation metrics for the learning objective.

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Recurrent neural networks (RNNs) stand at the forefront of many recent developments in deep learning. Yet a major difficulty with these models is their tendency to overfit, with dropout shown to fail when applied to recurrent layers. Recent results at the intersection of Bayesian modelling and deep learning offer a Bayesian interpretation of common deep learning techniques such as dropout. This grounding of dropout in approximate Bayesian inference suggests an extension of the theoretical results, offering insights into the use of dropout with RNN models. We apply this new variational inference based dropout technique in LSTM and GRU models, assessing it on language modelling and sentiment analysis tasks. The new approach outperforms existing techniques, and to the best of our knowledge improves on the single model state-of-the-art in language modelling with the Penn Treebank (73.4 test perplexity). This extends our arsenal of variational tools in deep learning.

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Training neural network language models over large vocabularies is still computationally very costly compared to count-based models such as Kneser-Ney. At the same time, neural language models are gaining popularity for many applications such as speech recognition and machine translation whose success depends on scalability. We present a systematic comparison of strategies to represent and train large vocabularies, including softmax, hierarchical softmax, target sampling, noise contrastive estimation and self normalization. We further extend self normalization to be a proper estimator of likelihood and introduce an efficient variant of softmax. We evaluate each method on three popular benchmarks, examining performance on rare words, the speed/accuracy trade-off and complementarity to Kneser-Ney.

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We show that there is a simple (approximately radial) function on $\reals^d$, expressible by a small 3-layer feedforward neural networks, which cannot be approximated by any 2-layer network, to more than a certain constant accuracy, unless its width is exponential in the dimension. The result holds for virtually all known activation functions, including rectified linear units, sigmoids and thresholds, and formally demonstrates that depth -- even if increased by 1 -- can be exponentially more valuable than width for standard feedforward neural networks. Moreover, compared to related results in the context of Boolean functions, our result requires fewer assumptions, and the proof techniques and construction are very different.

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We show that the Graph Isomorphism (GI) problem and the related problems of String Isomorphism (under group action) (SI) and Coset Intersection (CI) can be solved in quasipolynomial ($\exp((\log n)^{O(1)})$) time. The best previous bound for GI was $\exp(O(\sqrt{n\log n}))$, where $n$ is the number of vertices (Luks, 1983); for the other two problems, the bound was similar, $\exp(\tilde{O}(\sqrt{n}))$, where $n$ is the size of the permutation domain (Babai, 1983). The algorithm builds on Luks's SI framework and attacks the barrier configurations for Luks's algorithm by group theoretic "local certificates" and combinatorial canonical partitioning techniques. We show that in a well-defined sense, Johnson graphs are the only obstructions to effective canonical partitioning. Luks's barrier situation is characterized by a homomorphism {\phi} that maps a given permutation group $G$ onto $S_k$ or $A_k$, the symmetric or alternating group of degree $k$, where $k$ is not too small. We say that an element $x$ in the permutation domain on which $G$ acts is affected by {\phi} if the {\phi}-image of the stabilizer of $x$ does not contain $A_k$. The affected/unaffected dichotomy underlies the core "local certificates" routine and is the central divide-and-conquer tool of the algorithm.

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Neural networks are becoming central in several areas of computer vision and image processing and different architectures have been proposed to solve specific problems. The impact of the loss layer of neural networks, however, has not received much attention in the context of image processing: the default and virtually only choice is L2. In this paper we bring attention to alternative choices. We study the performance of several losses, including perceptually-motivated losses, and propose a novel, differentiable error function. We show that the quality of the results improves significantly with better loss functions, even when the network architecture is left unchanged.

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We stabilize the activations of Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs) by penalizing the squared distance between successive hidden states' norms. This penalty term is an effective regularizer for RNNs including LSTMs and IRNNs, improving performance on character-level language modeling and phoneme recognition, and outperforming weight noise and dropout. We achieve competitive performance (18.6\% PER) on the TIMIT phoneme recognition task for RNNs evaluated without beam search or an RNN transducer. With this penalty term, IRNN can achieve similar performance to LSTM on language modeling, although adding the penalty term to the LSTM results in superior performance. Our penalty term also prevents the exponential growth of IRNN's activations outside of their training horizon, allowing them to generalize to much longer sequences.

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This is a lecture note for the course DS-GA 3001 <Natural Language Understanding with Distributed Representation> at the Center for Data Science , New York University in Fall, 2015. As the name of the course suggests, this lecture note introduces readers to a neural network based approach to natural language understanding/processing. In order to make it as self-contained as possible, I spend much time on describing basics of machine learning and neural networks, only after which how they are used for natural languages is introduced. On the language front, I almost solely focus on language modelling and machine translation, two of which I personally find most fascinating and most fundamental to natural language understanding.

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State-of-the-art models for semantic segmentation are based on adaptations of convolutional networks that had originally been designed for image classification. However, dense prediction and image classification are structurally different. In this work, we develop a new convolutional network module that is specifically designed for dense prediction. The presented module uses dilated convolutions to systematically aggregate multi-scale contextual information without losing resolution. The architecture is based on the fact that dilated convolutions support exponential expansion of the receptive field without loss of resolution or coverage. We show that the presented context module increases the accuracy of state-of-the-art semantic segmentation systems. In addition, we examine the adaptation of image classification networks to dense prediction and show that simplifying the adapted network can increase accuracy.

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We propose BlackOut, an approximation algorithm to efficiently train massive recurrent neural network language models (RNNLMs) with million word vocabularies. BlackOut is motivated by using a discriminative loss, and we describe a new sampling strategy which significantly reduces computation while improving stability, sample efficiency, and rate of convergence. One way to understand BlackOut is to view it as an extension of the DropOut strategy to the output layer, wherein we use a discriminative training loss and a weighted sampling scheme. We also establish close connections between BlackOut, importance sampling, and noise contrastive estimation (NCE). Our experiments, on the recently released one billion word language modeling benchmark, demonstrate scalability and accuracy of BlackOut; we outperform the state-of-the art, and achieve the lowest perplexity scores on this dataset. Moreover, unlike other established methods which typically require GPUs or CPU clusters, we show that a carefully implemented version of BlackOut requires only 1-10 days on a single machine to train a RNNLM with a million word vocabulary and billions of parameters on one billion words. Although we describe BlackOut in the context of RNNLM training, it can be used to any networks with large softmax output layers.

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Deep feedforward and recurrent networks have achieved impressive results in many perception and language processing applications. This success is partially attributed to architectural innovations such as convolutional and long short-term memory networks. The main motivation for these architectural innovations is that they capture better domain knowledge, and importantly are easier to optimize than more basic architectures. Recently, more complex architectures such as Neural Turing Machines and Memory Networks have been proposed for tasks including question answering and general computation, creating a new set of optimization challenges. In this paper, we discuss a low-overhead and easy-to-implement technique of adding gradient noise which we find to be surprisingly effective when training these very deep architectures. The technique not only helps to avoid overfitting, but also can result in lower training loss. This method alone allows a fully-connected 20-layer deep network to be trained with standard gradient descent, even starting from a poor initialization. We see consistent improvements for many complex models, including a 72% relative reduction in error rate over a carefully-tuned baseline on a challenging question-answering task, and a doubling of the number of accurate binary multiplication models learned across 7,000 random restarts. We encourage further application of this technique to additional complex modern architectures.

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Recurrent neural networks (RNNs) are notoriously difficult to train. When the eigenvalues of the hidden to hidden weight matrix deviate from absolute value 1, optimization becomes difficult due to the well studied issue of vanishing and exploding gradients, especially when trying to learn long-term dependencies. To circumvent this problem, we propose a new architecture that learns a unitary weight matrix, with eigenvalues of absolute value exactly 1. The challenge we address is that of parametrizing unitary matrices in a way that does not require expensive computations (such as eigendecomposition) after each weight update. We construct an expressive unitary weight matrix by composing several structured matrices that act as building blocks with parameters to be learned. Optimization with this parameterization becomes feasible only when considering hidden states in the complex domain. We demonstrate the potential of this architecture by achieving state of the art results in several hard tasks involving very long-term dependencies.

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Many tasks in computer vision can be cast as a "label changing" problem, where the goal is to make a semantic change to the appearance of an image or some subject in an image in order to alter the class membership. Although successful task-specific methods have been developed for some label changing applications, to date no general purpose method exists. Motivated by this we propose deep manifold traversal, a method that addresses the problem in its most general form: it first approximates the manifold of natural images then morphs a test image along a traversal path away from a source class and towards a target class while staying near the manifold throughout. The resulting algorithm is surprisingly effective and versatile. It is completely data driven, requiring only an example set of images from the desired source and target domains. We demonstrate deep manifold traversal on highly diverse label changing tasks: changing an individual's appearance (age and hair color), changing the season of an outdoor image, and transforming a city skyline towards nighttime.

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In this paper we present a method for learning a discriminative classifier from unlabeled or partially labeled data. Our approach is based on an objective function that trades-off mutual information between observed examples and their predicted categorical class distribution, against robustness of the classifier to an adversarial generative model. The resulting algorithm can either be interpreted as a natural generalization of the generative adversarial networks (GAN) framework or as an extension of the regularized information maximization (RIM) framework to robust classification against an optimal adversary. We empirically evaluate our method - which we dub categorical generative adversarial networks (or CatGAN) - on synthetic data as well as on challenging image classification tasks, demonstrating the robustness of the learned classifiers. We further qualitatively assess the fidelity of samples generated by the adversarial generator that is learned alongside the discriminative classifier, and identify links between the CatGAN objective and discriminative clustering algorithms (such as RIM).

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Hypernymy, textual entailment, and image captioning can be seen as special cases of a single visual-semantic hierarchy over words, sentences, and images. In this paper we advocate for explicitly modeling the partial order structure of this hierarchy. Towards this goal, we introduce a general method for learning ordered representations, and show how it can be applied to a variety of tasks involving images and language. We show that the resulting representations improve performance over current approaches for hypernym prediction and image-caption retrieval.

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The standard recurrent neural network language model (RNNLM) generates sentences one word at a time and does not work from an explicit global sentence representation. In this work, we introduce and study an RNN-based variational autoencoder generative model that incorporates distributed latent representations of entire sentences. This factorization allows it to explicitly model holistic properties of sentences such as style, topic, and high-level syntactic features. Samples from the prior over these sentence representations remarkably produce diverse and well-formed sentences through simple deterministic decoding. By examining paths through this latent space, we are able to generate coherent novel sentences that interpolate between known sentences. We present techniques for solving the difficult learning problem presented by this model, demonstrate its effectiveness in imputing missing words, explore many interesting properties of the model's latent sentence space, and present negative results on the use of the model in language modeling.

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We propose the neural programmer-interpreter (NPI): a recurrent and compositional neural network that learns to represent and execute programs. NPI has three learnable components: a task-agnostic recurrent core, a persistent key-value program memory, and domain-specific encoders that enable a single NPI to operate in multiple perceptually diverse environments with distinct affordances. By learning to compose lower-level programs to express higher-level programs, NPI reduces sample complexity and increases generalization ability compared to sequence-to-sequence LSTMs. The program memory allows efficient learning of additional tasks by building on existing programs. NPI can also harness the environment (e.g. a scratch pad with read-write pointers) to cache intermediate results of computation, lessening the long-term memory burden on recurrent hidden units. In this work we train the NPI with fully-supervised execution traces; each program has example sequences of calls to the immediate subprograms conditioned on the input. Rather than training on a huge number of relatively weak labels, NPI learns from a small number of rich examples. We demonstrate the capability of our model to learn several types of compositional programs: addition, sorting, and canonicalizing 3D models. Furthermore, a single NPI learns to execute these programs and all 21 associated subprograms.

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Sequence to sequence learning has recently emerged as a new paradigm in supervised learning. To date, most of its applications focused on only one task and not much work explored this framework for multiple tasks. This paper examines three multi-task learning (MTL) settings for sequence to sequence models: (a) the oneto-many setting - where the encoder is shared between several tasks such as machine translation and syntactic parsing, (b) the many-to-one setting - useful when only the decoder can be shared, as in the case of translation and image caption generation, and (c) the many-to-many setting - where multiple encoders and decoders are shared, which is the case with unsupervised objectives and translation. Our results show that training on a small amount of parsing and image caption data can improve the translation quality between English and German by up to 1.5 BLEU points over strong single-task baselines on the WMT benchmarks. Furthermore, we have established a new state-of-the-art result in constituent parsing with 93.0 F1. Lastly, we reveal interesting properties of the two unsupervised learning objectives, autoencoder and skip-thought, in the MTL context: autoencoder helps less in terms of perplexities but more on BLEU scores compared to skip-thought.

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Experience replay lets online reinforcement learning agents remember and reuse experiences from the past. In prior work, experience transitions were uniformly sampled from a replay memory. However, this approach simply replays transitions at the same frequency that they were originally experienced, regardless of their significance. In this paper we develop a framework for prioritizing experience, so as to replay important transitions more frequently, and therefore learn more efficiently. We use prioritized experience replay in Deep Q-Networks (DQN), a reinforcement learning algorithm that achieved human-level performance across many Atari games. DQN with prioritized experience replay achieves a new state-of-the-art, outperforming DQN with uniform replay on 41 out of 49 games.

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