Graphical models, exponential families, and variational inference
The formalism of probabilistic graphical models provides a unifying framework for the development of large-scale multivariate statistical models. Graphical models have become a focus of research in many applied statistical and computational fields, including bioinformatics, information theory, signal and image processing, information retrieval and machine learning. Many problems that arise in specific instances---including the key problems of computing marginals and modes of probability distributions---are best studied in the general setting. Working with exponential family representations, and exploiting the conjugate duality between the cumulant generating function and the entropy for exponential families, we develop general variational representations of the problems of computing marginal probabilities and modes. We describe how a wide variety of known computational algorithms---including mean field methods and cluster variational techniques---can be understood in terms of approximations of these variational representations. We also present novel convex relaxations based on the variational framework. The variational approach provides a complementary alternative to Markov chain Monte Carlo as a general source of approximation methods for inference in large-scale statistical models.