BCD Nets: Scalable Variational Approaches for Bayesian Causal Discovery

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 pre-proceedings (NeurIPS 2021)

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Chris Cundy, Aditya Grover, Stefano Ermon


A structural equation model (SEM) is an effective framework to reason over causal relationships represented via a directed acyclic graph (DAG).Recent advances have enabled effective maximum-likelihood point estimation of DAGs from observational data. However, a point estimate may not accurately capture the uncertainty in inferring the underlying graph in practical scenarios, wherein the true DAG is non-identifiable and/or the observed dataset is limited.We propose Bayesian Causal Discovery Nets (BCD Nets), a variational inference framework for estimating a distribution over DAGs characterizing a linear-Gaussian SEM.Developing a full Bayesian posterior over DAGs is challenging due to the the discrete and combinatorial nature of graphs.We analyse key design choices for scalable VI over DAGs, such as 1) the parametrization of DAGs via an expressive variational family, 2) a continuous relaxation that enables low-variance stochastic optimization, and 3) suitable priors over the latent variables.We provide a series of experiments on real and synthetic data showing that BCD Nets outperform maximum-likelihood methods on standard causal discovery metrics such as structural Hamming distance in low data regimes.