I Introduction
Variational Autoencoders (VAE) ([14, 16]) are a fascinating facet of autoencoders, supporting, among other things, random generation of new data samples. Many interesting researches have been recently devoted to this subject, aiming either to extend the paradigm, such as conditional VAE ([17, 18]), or to improve some aspects it, as in the case of importance weighted autoencoders (IWAE) and their variants ([2, 15]). From the point of view of applications, variational autoencoders proved to be successful for generating many kinds of complex data such as natural images [10] or facial expressions [20], or also, more interestingly, for making probabilistic predictions about the future from static images [19]. In particular, variational autoencoders are a key component of the impressive work by DeepMind on representation and rendering of threedimensional scenes, recently published on Science [8].
Variational Autoencoders have a very nice mathematical theory, that we shall briefly survey in Section II
. One important component of the objective function neatly resulting from this theory is the KullbackLeibler divergence
, where is the distribution of latent variables given the data guessed by the network, andis a prior distribution of latent variables (typically, a Normal distribution). This component is acting as a regularizer, inducing a better distribution of latent variables, essential for generative sampling.
An additional effect of the KullbackLeibler component is that, working in latent spaces of sufficiently highdimension, the network learns representations sensibly more compact than the actual network capacity: many latent variables are zeroedout independently from the input, and are completely neglected by the generator. In the case of VAE, this phenomenon was first observed in [2]; following a terminology introduced in [22], it is frequently referred to as overpruning, to stress the fact that the model is induced to learn a suboptimal generative model by limiting itself to exploit a small number of latent variables. From this point of view, it is usually regarded as a negative property, and different training mechanisms have been envisaged to tackle this issue (see Section VIIA). In this article, we take a slightly different perspective, looking at sparsity
of latent variables as an important form of selfregularization, with all the typical benefits associated with it: in particular, it forces the model to focus on the really important features, typically resulting in a more robust encoding, less prone to overfitting. Sparsity is usually achieved in Neural Network by means of weightdecay L1 regularizers (see e.g.
[9]), and it is hence a pleasant surprise to discover that a similar effect is induced in VAEs by the KullbackLeibler component of the objective function.The most interesting consequence is that, for a given architecture, there seems to exist an intrinsic internal dimension of data. This property can be exploited as a main methodological guideline to tune the network capacity, progressively augmenting it to attain sparsity, or conversely reducing the dimension of the network removing links to unused neurons.
The degree of sparsity depends on the network architecture: for instance, convolutional networks typically show less sparsity, likely due to the tighter relation of features to different spatial regions of the input. This seems to suggest that the natural way to tackle the sparsity phenomenon is not by means of handtuned schemes that may just remove the regularization effect of the KullbackLeibler term, but by more sophisticated networks, inducing a less correlated use of latent variables (as e.g. in ).
Ii Variational Autoencoders
In this section we briefly recall the theory behind variational autoencoders; see e.g. [7] for a more thoroughly introduction.
In latent variable models we express the probability of a data point
through marginalization over a vector of latent variables:
(1) 
where are parameters of the model (we shall omit them in the sequel).
Sampling in the latent space may be problematic for several reasons. The variational approach exploits sampling from an auxiliary distribution . In order to understand the relation between and it is convenient to start from the KullbackLeibler divergence of from :
(2) 
or also, exploiting Bayes rule,
(3) 
does not depend on and may come out of the expectation; rephrasing part of the right hand side in terms of the KL divergence of from we obtain, by simple manipulations:
(4) 
Since the KullbackLeibler divergence is always positive, the term on the right is a lower bound to the loglikelihood , known as Evidence Lower Bound (ELBO).
In Equation 4, can be any distribution; in particular, we may take one depending on , hopefully resembling so that the quantity is small; in this case the loglikelihood is close to the Evidence Lower Bound; our learning objective is its maximization:
(5) 
The term on the right has a form resembling an autoencoder, where the term maps the input to the latent representation , and decodes back to .
The common assumption in variational autoencoders is that is normally distributed around an encoding function
, with variance
; similarly is normally distributed around a decoder function . All functions , and are computed by neural networks.Provided the decoder function has enough power, the shape of the prior distribution for latent variables can be arbitrary, and for simplicity we may assume it is a normal distribution
The term
is hence the KLdivergence between two Gaussian distributions
and which can be computed in closed form:(6) 
As for the term , under the Gaussian assumption the logarithm of is just the quadratic distance between and its reconstruction . Sampling, according to
is easy, since we know the moments
andof this Gaussian distribution. The only remaining problem is to integrate sampling with backpropagation, that is solved by the well known reparametrization trick (
[14, 16]).Let us finally observe that, for generating new samples, the mean and variance of latent variables is not used: we simply sample a vector of latent variables from the normal distribution and pass it as input to the decoder.
Iii Discussion
The mathematical theory behind Variational Autoencoders is very neat; nevertheless, there are several aspects whose practical relevance is difficult to grasp and look almost counterintuitive. For instance, in his Keras blog on Variational Autoencoders
^{1}^{1}1https://blog.keras.io/buildingautoencodersinkeras.html, F.Chollet writes  talking about the KullbackLeibler component in the objective function  that “you can actually get rid of this latter term entirely”. In fact, getting rid of it, the Gaussian distribution of latent variables would tend to collapse to a Dirac distribution around its mean value, making sampling pointless: the variational autoencoder would resemble a traditional autoencoder, preventing any sensible generation of new samples from the latent space.Still, the relevance of sampling during the training phase, apart from reducing overfitting and improving the robustness of the autoencoder, is not so evident. The variance around the encoding is typically very small, reflecting the fact that only a small region of the latent space will be able to produce a reconstruction close to . Experimentally, we see that the variance decreases very quickly during the first stages of training; since we rapidly reduce to sample in a small area around , it is natural to wonder about the actual purpose of this operation.
Moreover, the quadratic penalty on in Equation 6 is already sufficient to induce a Gaussianlike distribution of latent variables: so why we try to keep variance close to if we reasonably expect it to be much smaller?
In the following sections we shall try to give some empirical answers to these questions, investigating encodings for different datasets, using different neural architectures, with latent spaces of growing dimension. This will lead us to face the interesting sparsity phenomenon, that we shall discuss in Section VI.
Iv Mnist
In a video available on line^{2}^{2}2http://www.cs.unibo.it/~asperti/variational.html
we describe the trajectories in a binary latent space followed by ten random digits of the MNIST dataset (one for each class) during the first epoch of training. The animation is summarized in Figure
1, where we use fading to describe the evolution in time.Each digit is depicted by a circle with an area proportional to its variance. Intuitively, you can think of this area as the portion of the latent space producing a reconstruction similar to the original. At start time, the variance is close to 1, but it rapidly gets much smaller. This is not surprising, since we need to find a place for 60000 different digits. Note also that the ten digits initially have a chaotic distribution, but progressively dispose themselves around the origin in a Gaussianlike shape. This Gaussian distribution is better appreciated in Figure 2, where we describe the position and “size” (variance) of 60 digits (6 for each class) after 10 training epochs.
The real purpose of sampling during training is to induce the generator to exploit as much as possible the latent space surrounding the encoding of each data point. How much space can we occupy? In principle, all the available space, that is why we try to keep the distribution close to a normal distribution (the entire latent space). The hope is that this should induce a better coverage of the latent space, resulting in a better generation of new samples.
In the case of MNIST, we start getting some significant empirical evidence of the previous fact when considering a sufficiently deep architecture in a latent space of dimension 3 (with 2 dimensions it is difficult to appreciate the difference).
In Figure 3, we show the final distribution of 5000 MNIST digits in the 3dimensional latent space with and without sampling during training (in the case without sampling we keep the quadratic penalty on ). We also show the result of generative sampling from the latent space, organized in five horizontal slices of 25 points each.
(A) VAE 
(B) without sampling at training time 
We may observe that sampling during training induces a much more regular disposition of points in the latent space. In turn, this results in a drastic improvement in the quality of randomly generated images.
Iva Towards higher dimensions
One could easily wonder how the variational approach scales to higher dimensions of the latent space. The fear is as usual related to the curse of dimensionality: in a high dimensional space encoding of data in the latent space will eventually be scattered away, and it is not evident that sampling during training will be enough to guarantee a good coverage in view of generation.
In Figures 4 we show the result of generative sampling from a latent space of dimension 16, using a 784256322416 dense VAE architecture.
The generated digits are not bad, confirming a substantial stability of Variational Autoencoders to a growing dimension of the latent space. However, we observe a different and much more intriguing phenomenon: the internal representation is getting sparse.
In Figure 5 we show the evolution during a typical training of the variance of latent variables in a space of dimension 16.
Table I provides relevant statistics for each latent variable at the end of training, computed over the full dataset: the mean of its variance (that we expect to be around 1, since it should be normally distributed), and the mean of the computed variance (that we expect to be a small value, close to 0). The mean value is around 0 as expected, and we do not report it.
no.  variance  mean( 

0  8.847272e05  0.9802212 
1  0.00011756  0.99551463 
2  6.665453e05  0.98517334 
3  0.97417927  0.008741336 
4  0.99131817  0.006186147 
5  1.0012343  0.010142518 
6  0.94563377  0.057169348 
7  0.00015841  0.98205334 
8  0.94694275  0.033207607 
9  0.00014789  0.98505586 
10  1.0040375  0.018151345 
11  0.98543876  0.023995731 
12  0.000107441  0.9829797 
13  4.5068125e05  0.998983 
14  0.00010853  0.9604088 
15  0.9886378  0.044405878 
All variables highlighted in red have an anomalous behavior: their variance is very low (in practice, they always have value 0), while the variance computed by the network is around for each . Only 8 latent variables out of 16 are in use: the other ones (we call them inactive) are completely ignored by the generator. For instance, in Figure 6 we show a few digits randomly generated from Gaussian sampling in the latent space (upper line) and the result of generation when inactive latent variables have been zeroedout (lower line): they are indistinguishable.
IvB Convolutional Case
With convolutional networks, sparsity is less evident. We tested a relatively sophisticated network, whose structure is summarized in Figure 7.
The previous network is able to produce excellent generative results (see Figure 8).
As for sparsity, 3 of the 16 latent variables are zeroed out. Having less sparsity seems to suggest that convolutional networks make a better exploitation of latent variables, typically resulting in a more precise reconstruction and improved generative sampling. This is likely due to the fact that latent variables encode information corresponding to different portions of the input space, and are less likely to become useless for the generator.
V Generating tiles
We repeat the experiment on a different generative problem, consisting in generating images containing a given number of small white tiles on a black background. The number of expected tiles should depend on the kind of training images provided to the autoencoder. In this case, we fed as training data images containing a number of tiles ranging between 1 and 3. All tiles have dimension and the whole image is , similarly to MINST.
We start addressing the problem with the a dense network with dimensions 784512256643216.
In Figure 9 we give some example of input images (upper row) and their corresponding reconstructions (bottom row).
The mediocre reconstruction quality testifies that this is a much more complex problem than MNIST. In particular, generative sampling is quite problematic (see Figure 10)
Again, we have the same sparsity phenomenon already observed in the MNIST case: a large number of latent variables is inactive (see Table II):
no.  variance  mean( 

0  0.89744579  0.08080574 
1  5.1123271e05  0.98192715 
2  0.00013507  0.99159979 
3  0.99963027  0.016493475 
4  6.6830005e05  1.01567184 
5  0.96189236  0.053041528 
6  1.01692736  0.012168014 
7  0.99424797  0.037749815 
8  0.00011436  0.96450048 
9  3.2284329e05  0.97153729 
10  7.3369141e05  1.01612401 
11  0.91368156  0.086443416 
12  0.79746723175  0.23826576 
13  7.9485260e05  0.9702732 
14  0.92481815  0.089715622 
15  4.3311214e05  0.95554572 
Va Convolutional Case
We tested the same architecture of Section IVB. In this case, reconstruction is excellent (Figure 11).
Generative sampling has improved too (see Figure 12), but for an annoying counting problem: we expected to generate images with at most three tiles, while they frequently contain
a much larger number of them^{3}^{3}3This counting issue was the original motivation for our interest in this generative problem..
From the point of view of sparsity, 4 latent variables out of 16 result to be inactive.
Vi KullbackLeibler divergence and sparsity
Let us first of all observe that trying to compute relevant statistics for the posterior distribution of latent variables without some kind of regularization constraint does not make much sense. As a matter of fact, given a network with mean and variance
we can easily build another one having precisely the same behaviour by scaling mean and standard deviation by some constant
(for all data, uniformly), and then downscaling the generated samples in the next layer of the network. This kind of linear transformations are easily performed by any neural network (it is the same reason why it does not make much sense to add a batchnormalization layer
[11] before a linear layer).Let’s see how the KLdivergence helps to choose a solution. In the following, we suppose to work on a specific latent variable . Starting from the assumption that for a network it is easy to keep a fixed ratio we can push this value in the closed form of the KullbackLeibler divergence (see Equation 6), getting the following expression
(7) 
In Figure 13 we plot the previous function in terms of the variance, for a few given values of .
It is easy to derive that we have a miminum for
(8) 
that is close to 0 when is small, and close to when is high. Of course depends on , while the rescaling operation must be uniform, still the network will have a propensity to synthesize standard variations close to (below we shall average on all X).
Substituting the definition of in equation 8, we expect to reach a minimum when , that, by trivial computations, implies the following simple stationary condition:
(9) 
Let us now average together the KL components for all data X:
(10) 
We use the notation to abbreviate the average of on all data . The ratio can really (and easily) be kept constant by the net. Let us also observe that, assuming the mean of the latent variable to be 0, is just the (global) variance of the latent variable. Pushing in the previous equation, we get
The average of the logarithms
is the logarithm of the geometric mean of the variances. If we replace the geometric mean with an arithmetic mean, we get an expression essentially equivalent to equation
7, namely(11) 
that has a minimum when , that implies
(12) 
or simply,
(13) 
where we replaced with the variance of the latent variable in view of the consideration above.
Condition 12 can be experimentally verified. We did it in several experiments, and it always proved to be quite accurate, provided the neural network was sufficiently trained. As an example, for the data in Table I and Table II the average sum of and (the two cells in each row) is with a variance of ! Let us remark that condition 13 holds both for active and inactive variables, and not just for the cases when values are close to 0 or 1; for instance, observe the case of variable 12 in table , which has a global variance around 0.797 and a mean local variance around 0.238, almost complementary to 1.
Via Sparsity
Let us consider again the loglikelihood for data X.
If we replace the KullbackLeibler component with some other regularization, for instance just considering a quadratic penalty on latent variables, the sparsity phenomenon disappears. So, sparsity is tightly related to the KullbackLeibler divergence and in particular to the part of the term trying to keep the variance close to 1, that is
(14) 
whose effect typically degrades the distinctive characteristics of the features. It is also evident that if the generator ignores a latent variable, will not depend on it and the loglikelihood is maximal when the distribution of is equal to the prior distribution , that is just a normal distribution with 0 mean and standard deviation 1. In other words, the generator is induced to learn a value , ans a value ; sampling has no effect, since the sampled value for will just be ignored.
During training, if a latent variable is of moderate interest for reconstructing the input (in comparison with the other variables), the network will learn to give less importance to it; at the end, the KullbackLeibler divergence may prevail, pushing the mean towards 0 and the standard deviation towards 1. This will make the latent variable even more noisy, in a vicious loop that will eventually induce the network to completely ignore the latent variable.
We can get some empirical evidence of the previous phenomenon by artificially deteriorating the quality of a specific latent variable. In Figure 14, we show the evolution during training of one of the active variables of the variational autoencoder in Table I subject to a progressive addition of Gaussian noise. During the experiment, we force the variables that were already inactive to remain so, otherwise the network would compensate the deterioration of a new variable by revitalizing one of the dead ones.
In order to evaluate the contribution of the variable to the loss function we compute the difference between the reconstruction error when the latent variable is zeroed out with respect to the case when it is normally taken into account; we call this information
reconstruction gain.After each increment of the Gaussian noise we repeat one epoch of training, to allow the network to suitably reconfigure itself. In this particular case, the network reacts to the Gaussian noise by enlarging the mean values , in an attempt to escape from the noisy region, but also jointly increasing the KLdivergence. At some point, the reconstruction gain of the variable is becoming less than the KLdivergence; at this point we stop incrementing the Gaussian blur. Here, we assist to the sparsity phenomenon: the KLterm is suddenly pushing variance towards 1 (due to equation 14), with the result of decreasing the KLdivergence, but also causing a sudden and catastrophic collapse of the reconstruction gain of the latent variable.
Contrarily to what is frequently believed, sparsity seems to be reversible, at some extent. If we remove noise from the variable, as soon as the network is able to perceive a potentiality in it (that may take several epochs, as evident if Figure 14), it will eventually make a suitable use of it. Of course, we should not expect to recover the original information gain, since the network may have meanwhile learned a different repartition of roles among latent variables.
Vii A controversial issue
The sparsity phenomenon in Variational Autoencoders is a controverial topic: you can either stress the suboptimal use of the actual network capacity (overpruning), or its beneficial regularization effects. In this section we shall rapidly survey on the recent research along this two directions.
Viia Overpruning
The observation that working in latent spaces of sufficiently highdimension, Variational Autoencoders tend to neglect a large number of latent variables, likely resulting in impoverished, suboptimal generative models, was first made in [2]. The term overpruning to denote this phenomenon was introduced in [22], with a clearly negative acception: an issue to be solved to improve VAE.
The most typical approach to tackle this issue is that of using a parameter to trade off the contribution of the reconstruction error with respect to the KullbackLeibler regularizer:
(15) 
The theoretical role of this parameter is not so evident; let us briefly discuss it. In the closed form of the traditional logloss fo VAE there are two parameters that seems to come out of the blue, and that may help to understand the . The first one is the variance of the prior distribution, that seems to be arbitrarily set to 1. However, as e.g. observed in [7], a different variance for the prior may be easily compensated by the learned means and variances for the posterior distribution : in other words, the variance of the prior has essentially the role of fixing a unit of measure for the latent space. The second choice that looks arbitrary is the assumption that the distribution has a normal shape around the decoder function : in fact, in this case, the variance of this distribution may strongly affect the resulting loss function, and could justify the introduction of a balancing parameter.
Tuning down reduces the number of inactive latent variable, but this may not result in an improved quality of generated samples: the network uses the additional capacity to improve the quality of reconstruction, at the price of having a less regular distribution in the latent space, that becomes harder to exploit by a random generator.
More complex variants of the previous technique comprise an annealed optimization schedule for [1] or enforcing minimum KL contribution from subsets of latent units [13]. All these schemes require handtuning and, to cite [22], they easily risk to “take away the principled regularization scheme that is built into VAE.”
A different way to tackle overpruning is that modelbased, consisting in devising architectural modifications that may alleviate the problem. For instance, in [21] the authors propose a probabilistic generative model composed by a number of sparse variational autoencoders called epitoms that partially share their encoderdecoder architectures. The intuitive idea is that each data can be embedded into a small subspace of the latent space, specific to the given data.
Similarly, in [6] the use of skipconnections is advocated as a possible technique to address overpruning.
While there is no doubt that particular network architectures show less sparsity than others (see also the comparison we did in this article between dense and convolutional networks), in order to claim that the aforementioned approaches are general techniques for tackling overpruning it should be proved that they systematically lead to improved generative models across multiple architectures and many different data sets, that is a result still in want of confirmation.
ViiB Regularization
Recently, there have been a few works trying to stress the beneficial effects of the KullbackLeibler component, and its essential role for generative purposes.
An interesting perspective on the calibration between the reconstruction error and the KullbackLeibler regularizer is provided by VAE [12] [3]. Formally, the shape of the objective function is the same of equation 15 (where the parameter is renamed ), but in this case the emphasis is in pushing to be high. This is reinforcing the sparsity effect of the KullbackLeibler regularizer, inducing the model to learn more disentangled features. The intuition is that the network should naturally learn a representation of points in the latent space such that the “confusion” due to the KullbackLeibler component is minimized: latent features should be general, i.e. apply to a large number of data, and data should naturally cluster according to them. A metrics to measure the degree of disentanglement learned by the model is introduced in [12], and it is used to provide experimental results confirming the beneficial effects of a strong regularization. In [3], an interesting analogy between VAE and the Information Bottleneck is investigated.
In a different work [4], it has been recently proved that a VAE with affine decoder is identical to a robust PCA model, able to decompose the dataset into a lowrank representation and a sparse noise. This is extended to the nonlinear case in [5]
; in particular, it is proved that a VAE with infinite capacity can detect the manifold dimension and only use a minimal number of latent dimensions to represent the data, filling the redundant dimensions with white noise. In the same work the authors propose a quite interesting two stage approach, to address the potential mismatch between the aggregate posterior
and the prior : a second VAE is trained to learn an accurate approximantion of ; samples from a Normal distribution are first used to generate samples of , and then fed to the actual generator of data points. In this way, it no longer matters that andare not similar, since you can just sample from the latter using the secondstage VAE. This approach does not require additional hyperparameters or sensitive tuning, and produces highquality samples, competitive with stateoftheart GAN models, both in terms of FID score and visual quality.
Viii Conclusions
In this article we discussed the interesting phenomenon of sparsity (aka overpruning) in Variational Autoencoders, induced by the KullbackLeibler component of the objective function, and briefly surveyed some of the recent literature on the topic. Our point of view is slightly different from the most traditional one, in the sense that maybe, as it is also suggested by other recent literature (see Section VIIB), there is no issue to tackle: the KullbackLeibler component has a beneficial selfregularizing effect, forcing the model to focus on the most important and disentangled features. This is precisely the reason why we prefer to talk of sparsity, instead of overpruning. In particular, sparsity is one of the few methodological guidelines that may be deployed in the architectural design of Variational Autoencoders, suitably tuning the dimension of the latent space. If the resulting network does not give satisfactory results, we should likely switch to more sophisticated architectures, making a better exploitation of the latent space. If the reconstruction error is low but generation is bad, it is a clear indication of a mismatch between the aggregate posterior and the prior ; in this case, a simple twostage approach as described in [5] might suffice.
Of the two terms composing the objective function of VAE, the weakest one looks the reconstruction error (traditionally dealt with a pixelwise quadratic error), so it is a bit surprising that most of the research focus on the KullbackLeibler regularization component.
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