Inference network: RNNs vs NNets

The standard variational autoencoder [1] uses neural networks to approximate the true posterior distribution by mapping an input to mean and variance of a standard Gaussian distribution. A simple modification is to replace the inference network from neural nets to RNN. That what exactly this paper present [2].

Intuitively, the RNN will work on the dataset that each consecutive features are highly correlated. It means that for the public dataset such as MNIST, RNN should have no problem approximate posterior distribution of any MNIST digit.

I started with a classical VAE. First, I trained VAE on MNIST dataset, with the hidden units of 500 for both encoders and decoders. I set the latent dimension to 2 so that I can quickly visualize on 2D plot.



2D embedding using Neural Nets (2-layers) as inference network

Some digits are clustered together but some are mixed together because VAE does not know the label of the digits. Thus, it will still put similar digits nearby, aka digit 7’s are right next to digit 9’s. Many digit 3 and 2 are mixed together. To have a better separation between each digit classes, the label information shall be utilized. In fact, our recent publication to SIGIR’2017 utilizes the label information in order to cluster similar documents together.

But come back to our original research question. Is RNN really going to improve the quality of the embedding vectors?


2D embedding using LSTM as inference network


The above 2D plot shows that using LSTM as an inference network has a slightly different embedding space.


2D embedding vectors of randomly chosen MNIST digits using GRU as inference network

LSTM and GRU also generate slightly different embedding vectors. The recurrent model tends to spread out each digit class. For example, digit 6’s (orange) are spread out. All models mixed digit 4 and 9 together. We should know that mixing digits together might not be a bad thing because some writing digit 4 are very similar to 9. This probably indicates that the recurrent model can capture more subtle similarity between digits.

Now, we will see if RNN model might generate better-looking digits than a standard model.






neural nets

It is difficult to tell which models are better. In term of training time, neural nets are the fastest, and LSTM is the slowest. It could be that we have not utilize the strength of RNN yet. Since we are working on MNIST dataset, it might be easy for a traditional model (Neural nets) to perform well. What if we train the model on text datasets such as Newsgroup20? Intuitively, RNN should be able to capture the sequential information. We might get a better embedding space, maybe? Next time we will investigate further on text dataset.


[1] Kingma, Diederik P., and Max Welling. “Auto-encoding variational bayes.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1312.6114 (2013).

[2] Fabius, Otto, and Joost R. van Amersfoort. “Variational recurrent auto-encoders.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1412.6581 (2014).

A Recurrent Latent Variable Model for Sequential Data (NIPS’15)

This paper presents a sequential model that is incorporating uncertainty to better model variability that arises from the data itself.

The motivation comes from the fact that data itself especially speech signal has a high variability that does not come from the noise alone. The complex relationship between observed data and an underlying factor of the variability cannot be modeled by the basic RNN alone. For example, vocal quality of the speaker affects the wave audio even though the speaker says the same word.

In a classical RNN, the state transition h_t = f_{\theta}(x_t, h_{t-1}) is a deterministic function and typically f_{\theta} is either LSTM or GRU. RNN models the joint probability of the entire sequencep(x_1, x_2, \cdot, x_T) = \prod_{t=1}^T p(x_t | x_{<t}) =\prod_{t=1}^T g_{\tau}(h_{t-1}) whereg_{\tau} is an output function that maps hidden state to the probility distribution of the output. The choice ofg_{\tau} depends on the problem. Typically, function g has 2 parts: (1) parameter generator,\phi_t = \varphi_{\tau}(h_{t-1}) and (2) density function: P_{\phi_t}(x_t | x_{<t}) . We can also make function g as a GMM; hence, function \phi_t will generate a mixture coefficient parameters.

The source of variability in RNN comes from the output function g alone. This can be problematic in speech signal because RNN must map many variants of input wave to a potentially large variation of the hidden state h_t . The limitation of RNN motivates the author to introduce uncertainty into RNN.

In order to turn RNN to an un-deterministic model, the author assumes that each data point x_t has a latent variable z_t where the latent variable is drawn from a standard Gaussian distribution initially. The generative process is as follows:

  • For each step t to T
    • Compute prior parameters:[\mu_{0,t}, \text{diag}(\sigma_{0,t})] = \phi_{\tau}^{\text{prior}}(h_{t-1})
    • Draw a prior:z_t \sim N(\mu_{0,t}, \text{diag}(\sigma_{0,t}^2))
    • Compute likelihood parameters: [\mu_{x,t},\sigma_{x,t}] = \phi_{\tau}^{\text{dec}}(\phi_{\tau}^z(z_t), h_{t-1})
    • Draw a sample:x_t | z_t \sim N(\mu_{x,t}, \text{diag}(\sigma_{x,t}^2))
    • Compute a hidden state:h_t = f_{\theta}(\phi_{\tau}^x(x_t), \phi_{\tau}^z(z_t), h_{t-1})

The state transition function is now an un-deterministic function because z_t is a random variable. Also, the hidden state h_t depends on  x_{<t}, z_{<t}, therefore, we can replace  h_t with:

  • z_t \sim p(z_t | x_{<t}, z_{<t})
  • x_t|z_t \sim p(x_t | z_{\le t}, x_{\le t})

Thus, the joint distribution becomes:

p(x_{\le T}, z_{\le T}) = \prod_{t=1}^T p(x_t|z_{\le t}, x_{<t})p(z_t|x_{<t},z_{<t})

The objective function is to maximize the log-likelihood of the input sequence:p(x_{\le T}) = \int_z p(x_{\le T}, z_{\le T}) dz . By assuming the approximate posterior distribution q(z_{\le T} | x_{\le T}) = \prod_{t=1}^T q(z_t | x_{\le t}, z_{<t}) is factorizable, the ELBO is:

E_{q(z_{\le T}|x_{\le T})}\big[ \sum_{t=1}^T \log p(x_t|z_{\le t},x_{<t}) - KL(q(z_t|x_{\le t},z_{<t}) || p(z_t|x_{<t},z_{<t})) \big]

The ELBO can be trained efficiently through variational autoencoder framework. In fact, this model is a sequential version of the classical variational autoencoder.


Chung, Junyoung, et al. “A recurrent latent variable model for sequential data.” Advances in neural information processing systems. 2015.

TopicRNN : A Recurrent Neural Network with Long-Range Semantic Dependency

This paper presents a RNN-based language model that is designed to capture a long-range semantic dependency. The proposed model is a simple and elegant, and yields sensible topics.

The key insight of this work is the difference between semantic and syntax. Semantic is relating to an over structure and information of the given context. If we are given a document, its semantic is a theme or topic. Semantic is meant to capture a global meaning of the context. We need to see enough words to understand its semantic.

In contrast, a syntax is dealt with local information. The likelihood of the current word heavily depends on the preceding words. This local information depends on the word ordering whereas the global information does not depend on word ordering.

This paper points out the weakness in probabilistic topic models such as LDA such as its lack of word ordering, its poor performance on word prediction. If we use bigram or trigram then these higher order models become intractable. Furthermore, LDA does not model stopwords very well because LDA is based on word co-occurrence. Stopwords tend to appear everywhere because stopwords do not carry semantic information but it acts as a filler to make the language more readable. Thus, when training LDA, the stopwords are usually discarded during the preprocessing.

RNN-based language models attempt to capture sequential information. It models a word joint distribution as P(y_1, y_2, \cdots, y_T) = P(y_1) \prod_{t=2}^T p(y_t | y_{1:t-1}). The Markov assumption is necessary to keep the inference tractable. The shortcoming is the limitation of the context windows. The higher order Markov assumption makes an inferencing becomes more difficult.

The neural network language model avoids Markov assumption by modeling a conditional probability P(y_t | y_{1:t-1}) = p(y_t|h_t) where h_t = f(h_{t-1}, x_t). Basically, h_t is a summarization of the preceding words and it uses this information to predict the current word. The RNN-based language model works pretty well but it has difficulty with long-range dependency due to the difficulty in optimization and overfitting.

Combining the advantage from both topic modeling and RNN-based is the contribution of this paper. The topic model will be used as a bias to the learned word conditional probability. They chose to make the topic vector as a bias because they don’t want to mix it up with the hidden state of RNN that includes stopwords.

The model has a binary switch variable. When it encounters a stopword, the switch is off and disable a topic vector. The switch is on otherwise. The word probability is defined as follows:

p(y_t = i | h_t, \theta, l_t, B) \propto \exp ( v_t^T h_t + (1 - l_t)b_i^T \theta)

The switch variable, l_t turn on and off the topic vector \theta.

This model is end-to-end network, meaning that it will jointly learn topic vectors and local state from RNN. The topic vector is coupled with RNN’s state so the local dynmic from word sequence will influence the topic vector and wise verse.

RNN can be replaced with GRU or LSTM. The paper shows that using GRU yields the best perplexity on Penn Treebank (PTB) dataset. The learned representation can be used to as a feature for many tasks including sentiment analysis where we want to classify positive and negative reviews on IMDB dataset.

I found this model is simple and elegantly combine VAE with RNN. The motivation is clear and we can see why using contextual information learned from VAE will improve the quality of the representation.

reference: (ICLR 2017 – Poster)