Fitting an inference algorithm instead of a model

One recent trend seems to be the realization that one can get better performance by tuning a CRF (Conditional Random Field) to a particular inference algorithm. Basically, forget about the distribution that the CRF represents, and instead only care how accurate are the results that pop out of inference. An extreme example of this is the recent paper Learning Real-Time MRF Inference for Image Denoising by Adrian Barbu.

The basic idea is to fit a FoE (Field of Experts) image prior such that when one takes a very few gradient descent steps on a denoising posterior, the results are accurate. From the abstract:

We argue that through appropriate training, a MRF/CRF model can be trained to perform very well on a suboptimal inference algorithm. The model is trained together with a fast inference algorithm through an optimization of a loss function […] We apply the proposed method to an image denoising application […] with a 1-4 iteration gradient descent inference algorithm. […] the proposed training approach obtains an improved benchmark performance as well as a 1000-3000 times speedup compared to the Fields of Experts MRF.

The implausible-sounding 1000-fold speedup comes simply from using only 4 iterations of gradient descent rather than several thousand. (Incidentally, L-BFGS requires far fewer iterations for this problem.) The results are a bit better than the generative FoE model– that takes much more work for training and inference.

I have every confidence that this does work well, and similar strategies could probably be used to create fast inference models/algorithms for many different problems. My thesis was largely an attempt to do the same thing for marginal, rather than MAP inference.

The disturbing/embarrassing question, for me, is does this really have anything to do with probabilistic modeling any more? Formally speaking, a probability density is being fit, but I doubt it would transfer to, say, inpainting, or that samples from the density would look like natural images. The best interpretation of what is happening might be that one is simply fitting a big, nonlinear, black box function approximation.

It seems that the more effort we expend to wring the best performance out of a probabilistic model, the less “probabilistic” it is.

P.S. Some of my friends have invited me to never mention autodiff again, ever, but this is one of the many papers where I think the learning optimization would be made much easier/faster by using it.