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EPSRC Reference: EP/J013293/1
Title: Learning Highly Structured Sparse Latent Variable Models
Principal Investigator: Silva, Professor RBd
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Department: Statistical Science
Organisation: UCL
Scheme: First Grant - Revised 2009
Starts: 01 October 2012 Ends: 31 December 2013 Value (£): 99,532
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Artificial Intelligence
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
No relevance to Underpinning Sectors
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Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
01 Feb 2012 EPSRC ICT Responsive Mode - Feb 2012 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
Technological advances have brought the ability of collecting and analysing patterns in high-dimensional databases. One particular type of analysis concerns problems where the recorded variables indirectly measure hidden factors that explain away observed associations. For instance, the recent National NHS Staff Survey of 2009, taken by over one hundred thousand staff members, contained several questions on job satisfaction. It is only natural that the patterns of observed answers are the result of some common hidden factors that remain unrecorded. In particular, such answers could arguably be grouped by factors such as perceptions of the quality of work practice, support of colleagues and so on, that are only indirectly measured.

In practice, when making sense out of a high-dimensional data source, it is useful to reduce the observations to a small number of common factors. Since records are affected by sources of variability that are unrelated to the actual factors (think of someone having a bad day, or even typing wrong information by mistake), removing such artifacts is also part of the statistical problem. A model that estimates such transformations is said to perform "dimensionality reduction" and "smoothing".

There are a variety of methods to accomplish such tasks. At one end of the spectrum, there are models that assume the data match some very simple patterns such as bell curves and pre-determined factors. Others are very powerful, allowing for flexible patterns and even an infinite number of factors that are inferred from data under some very mild assumptions. The proposed work tries to bridge these extremes: the shortcomings of the very flexible models are subtle but important. In particular, they can be very sensitive to changes in the data - meaning some very different conclusions about the hidden factors might be achieved if a slightly different set of observations is provided. Moreover there are computational concerns: calculating the desired estimates usually requires an iterative process, a process that needs some initial guess about these estimates. So, even for a fixed dataset, results can vary considerably if such an initial guess is not carefully chosen. Our motivation is that if one does have these concerns, one might as well take the trouble of incorporating domain knowledge about the domain. The upshot: we do not aim to be general, and instead target applications where some reasonable domain knowledge exists. In particular, we focus on problems where the hidden targets of interest are pre-specified, but infinitely many others might exist. While we map our data to a fixed space of hidden variables, we provide an approach that is robust to the presence of an unbounded number of other, implicit, common factors. The proposed models are adaptive: they account for possible extra variability between the given hidden factors that would be missed by the simpler models. At the same time, they are designed to be less sensitive to initial conditions while being less sensitive to small changes in the datasets.

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