High-dimensional integration

Numerically integrating functions of many variables almost always requires Monte Carlo integration or some variation. Numerical analysis textbooks often emphasize one-dimensional integration and, almost as a footnote, say that you can use a product scheme to bootstrap one-dimensional methods to higher dimensions. True, but impractical.

Traditional numerical integration routines work well in low dimensions. (“Low” depends on context, but let’s say less than 10 dimensions.) When you have the choice of a well-understood, deterministic method, and it works well, by all means use it. I’ve seen people who are so used to problems requiring Monte Carlo methods that they use these methods on low-dimensional problems where they’re not the most efficient (or robust) alternative.

Monte Carlo

Except for very special integrands, high dimensional integration requires either Monte Carlo integration or some variation such as quasi-Monte Carlo methods.

As I wrote about here, naive Monte Carlo integration isn’t practical for high dimensions. It’s unlikely that any of your integration points will fall in the region of interest without some sort of importance sampler. Constructing a good importance sampler requires some understanding of your particular problem. (Sorry. No one-size-fits-all black-box methods are available.)

Quasi-Monte Carlo (QMC)

Quasi-Monte Carlo methods (QMC) are interesting because they rely on something like a random sequence, but “more random” in a sense, i.e. more effective at exploring a high-dimensional space. These methods work well when an integrand has low effective dimension. The effective dimension is low when nearly all the action takes place on a lower dimensional manifold. For example, a function may ostensibly depend on 10,000 variables, while for practical purposes 12 of these are by far the most important. There are some papers by Art Owen that say, roughly, that Quasi-Monte Carlo methods work well if and only if the effective dimension is much smaller than the nominal dimension. (QMC methods are especially popular in financial applications.)

While QMC methods can be more efficient than Monte Carlo methods, it’s hard to get bounds on the integration error with these methods. Hybrid approaches, such as randomized QMC can perform remarkably well and give theoretical error bounds.

Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC)

Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) is a common variation on Monte Carlo integration that uses dependent random samples. In many applications, such as Bayesian statistics, you’d like to be able to create independent random samples from some probability distribution, but this is not practical. MCMC is a compromise. It produces a Markov chain of dependent samples, and asymptotically these samples have the desired distribution. The dependent nature of the samples makes it difficult to estimate error and to determine how well the integration estimates using the Markov chain have converged.

(Some people speak of the Markov chain itself converging. It doesn’t. The estimates using the Markov chain may converge. Speaking about the chain converging may just be using informal language, or it may betray a lack of understanding.)

There is little theory regarding the convergence of estimates from MCMC, aside from toy problems. An estimate can appear to have converged, while an important region of the integration problem remains unexplored. Despite its drawbacks, MCMC is the only game in town for many applications.

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