Introduction to simulation-based inference

Scientists and engineers employ stochastic numerical simulators to model empirically observed phenomena. In contrast to purely statistical models, simulators express scientific principles that provide powerful inductive biases, improve generalization to new data or scenarios and allow for fewer, more interpretable and domain-relevant parameters. Despite these advantages, tuning a simulator’s parameters so that its outputs match data is challenging. Simulation-based inference (SBI) seeks to identify parameter sets that a) are compatible with prior knowledge and b) match empirical observations. Importantly, SBI does not seek to recover a single ‘best’ data-compatible parameter set, but rather to identify all high probability regions of parameter space that explain observed data, and thereby to quantify parameter uncertainty. In Bayesian terminology, SBI aims to retrieve the posterior distribution over the parameters of interest. In contrast to conventional Bayesian inference, SBI is also applicable when one can run model simulations, but no formula or algorithm exists for evaluating the probability of data given parameters, i.e. the likelihood.

In this talk we will first survey the approaches in use for SBI to then focus on simulation-based inference algorithms for black-box simulators that leverage recent developments in neural density estimators.