Max-and-Smooth: A Two-Step Approach for Approximate Bayesian Inference in Latent Gaussian Models

Birgir Hrafnkelsson, Stefan Siegert, Raphaël Huser, Haakon Bakka, Arni Johannesson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


With modern high-dimensional data, complex statistical models are necessary, requiring computationally feasible inference schemes. We introduce Max-and-Smooth, an approximate Bayesian inference scheme for a flexible class of latent Gaussian models (LGMs) where one or more of the likelihood parameters are modeled by latent additive Gaussian processes. Our proposed inference scheme is a two-step approach. In the first step (Max), the likelihood function is approximated by a Gaussian density with mean and covariance equal to either (a) the maximum likelihood estimate and the inverse observed information, respectively, or (b) the mean and covariance of the normalized likelihood function. In the second step (Smooth), the latent parameters and hyperparameters are inferred and smoothed with the approximated likelihood function. The proposed method ensures that the uncertainty from the first step is correctly propagated to the second step. Because the prior density for the latent parameters is assumed to be Gaussian and the approximated likelihood function is Gaussian, the approximate posterior density of the latent parameters (conditional on the hyperparameters) is also Gaussian, thus facilitating efficient posterior inference in high dimensions. Furthermore, the approximate marginal posterior distribution of the hyperparameters is tractable, and as a result, the hyperparameters can be sampled independently of the latent parameters. We show that the computational cost of Max-and-Smooth is close to being insensitive to the number of independent data replicates, and that it scales well with increased dimension of the latent parameter vector provided that its Gaussian prior density is specified with a sparse precision matrix. In the case of a large number of independent data replicates, sparse precision matrices, and high-dimensional latent vectors, the speedup is substantial in comparison to an MCMC scheme that infers the posterior density from the exact likelihood function. The accuracy of the Gaussian approximation to the likelihood function increases with the number of data replicates per latent model parameter. The proposed inference scheme is demonstrated on one spatially referenced real dataset and on simulated data mimicking spatial, temporal, and spatio-temporal inference problems. Our results show that Max-and-Smooth is accurate and fast.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)611-638
Number of pages28
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Applied Mathematics


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