Improved Variational Bayesian Phylogenetic Inference with Normalizing Flows

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 33 (NeurIPS 2020)

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Cheng Zhang


Variational Bayesian phylogenetic inference (VBPI) provides a promising general variational framework for efficient estimation of phylogenetic posteriors. However, the current diagonal Lognormal branch length approximation would significantly restrict the quality of the approximating distributions. In this paper, we propose a new type of VBPI, VBPI-NF, as a first step to empower phylogenetic posterior estimation with deep learning techniques. By handling the non-Euclidean branch length space of phylogenetic models with carefully designed permutation equivariant transformations, VBPI-NF uses normalizing flows to provide a rich family of flexible branch length distributions that generalize across different tree topologies. We show that VBPI-NF significantly improves upon the vanilla VBPI on a benchmark of challenging real data Bayesian phylogenetic inference problems. Further investigation also reveals that the structured parameterization in those permutation equivariant transformations can provide additional amortization benefit.