Eric Jonas and Vikash Mansinghka
Navia Systems

Natively Probabilistic Computation: Principles, Artifacts, Architectures and Applications

Wednesday 03rd of November 2010 at 12:00pm
508-20 Evans Hall

Complex probabilistic models and Bayesian inference are becoming increasingly critical across science and industry, especially in large-scale data analysis. They are also central to our best computational accounts of human cognition, perception and action. However, all these efforts struggle with the infamous curse of dimensionality. Rich probabilistic models can seem hard to write and even harder to solve, as specifying and calculating probabilities often appears to require the manipulation of exponentially (and sometimes infinitely) large tables of numbers.

We argue that these difficulties reflect a basic mismatch between the needs of probabilistic reasoning and the deterministic, functional orientation of our current hardware, programming languages and CS theory. To mitigate these issues, we have been developing a stack of abstractions for natively probabilistic computation, based around stochastic simulators (or samplers) for distributions, rather than evaluators for deterministic functions. Ultimately, our aim is to produce a model of computation and the associated hardware and programming tools that are as suited for uncertain inference and decision-making as our current computers are for precise arithmetic.

In this talk, we will give an overview of the entire stack of abstractions supporting natively probabilistic computation, with technical detail on several hardware and software artifacts we have implemented so far. we will also touch on some new theoretical results regarding the computational complexity of probabilistic programs. Throughout, we will motivate and connect this work to some current applications in biomedical data analysis and computer vision, as well as potential hypotheses regarding the implementation of probabilistic computation in the brain.

This talk includes joint work with Keith Bonawitz, Beau Cronin, Cameron Freer, Daniel Roy and Joshua Tenenbaum.


Vikash Mansinghka is a co-founder and the CTO of Navia Systems, a venture-funded startup company building natively probabilistic computing machines. He spent 10 years at MIT, eventually earning an SB. in Mathematics, an SB. in Computer Science, an MEng in Computer Science, and a PhD in Computation. He held graduate fellowships from the NSF and MIT's Lincoln Laboratories, and his PhD dissertation won the 2009 MIT George M. Sprowls award for best dissertation in computer science. He currently serves on DARPA's Information Science and Technology (ISAT) Study Group.

Eric Jonas is a co-founder of Navia Systems, responsible for in-house accelerated inference research and development. He spent ten years at MIT, where he earned SB degrees in electrical engineering and computer science and neurobiology, an MEng in EECS, with a neurobiology PhD expected really soon. He’s passionate about biological applications of probabilistic reasoning and hopes to use Navia’s capabilities to combine data from biological science, clinical histories, and patient outcomes into seamless models.

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