The Catoni-Giulini estimator

March 07, 2024

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We’ve previously discussed the median-of-means estimator for estimating the mean of random vectors. While median-of-means has sub-Gaussian performance assuming only the existence of the covariance matrix, it’s a complicated estimator to implement in the multivariate setting. Remarkably, there’s a simple threshold-based estimator due to Catoni and Giulini that achieves near sub-Gaussian performance.

Let \(\Xvec_1, \Xvec_2,\dots,\Xvec_n\sim P\) be iid (this condition can be weakened—see our paper) with mean \(\muvec\) and assume that the second moment is bounded by \(v\):

\[\begin{equation} \E_P \norm{\Xvec}^2 \leq v<\infty. \end{equation}\]

For a positive scalar \(\lambda>0\) to be chosen later, define the threshold function

\[\begin{equation} \thres(\bs{x}) := \frac{\lambda \norm{\bs{x}} \wedge 1}{\lambda\norm{\bs{x}}}\bs{x}. \end{equation}\]

Here \(a\wedge b = \min(a,b)\). This function simply shrinks \(\bs{x}\) towards the origin by an amount proportional to \(\lambda\) and is clearly easy to implement computationally. The Catoni-Giulini estimator is

\[\widehat{\muvec} = \frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^n \thres(\Xvec_i).\]

Notice that by Cauchy-Schwarz,

\[\begin{equation} \label{eq:muvec-mu-decomp} \norm{\widehat{\muvec} - \muvec} = \sup_{\varthetavec\in\sd} \la \varthetavec, \widehat{\muvec} - \muvec\ra = \sup_{\varthetavec\in\sd}\frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^n \la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec_i) - \muvec\ra,\tag{1} \end{equation}\]

where \(\sd = \{\bs{x}\in \Re^d: \norm{\bs{x}=1}\}.\) Therefore, we’ll bound the deviation of \(\widehat{\muvec}\) from \(\muvec\) by bounding \(\la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec_i) - \muvec\ra\). We proceed by separating this quantity into two terms:

\[\begin{equation} \label{eq:thres_decomp} \la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec_i) - \muvec\ra = \underbrace{\la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec_i) - \muvec^\thres\ra}_{(i)} + \underbrace{\la \varthetavec, \muvec^\thres - \muvec\ra}_{(ii)}, \tag{2} \end{equation}\]

where \(\muvec^\thres = \E[\thres(\Xvec)]\). First we’ll bound term (ii) and then we’ll bound term (i).

Bounding (ii)

Notice the relationship

\[\begin{equation*} 0\leq 1 - \frac{a\wedge 1}{a}\leq a,\quad \forall a>0. \end{equation*}\]

This is easily seen by case analysis. Indeed, for \(a\geq 1\), we have \((a\wedge 1)/a = 1/a\) and \(1-1/a\leq 1\leq a\). For \(a<1\), we have \(1-(a\wedge 1)/a = 1 - 1=0\leq a\). Now, let

\[\alpha(\Xvec) = \frac{\lambda \norm{\Xvec} \wedge 1}{\lambda \norm{\Xvec}},\]

and note that the above analysis demonstrates that

\[\begin{equation} \label{eq:abs_alpha_bound} |\alpha(\Xvec)-1| = 1 - \alpha(\Xvec) \leq \lambda\norm{\Xvec}. \tag{3} \end{equation}\]


\[\begin{align*} \quad \la \varthetavec,\muvec^\thres - \muvec\ra &= \la \varthetavec, \E[\alpha(\Xvec) \Xvec] - \E[\Xvec]\ra \\ &= \E (\alpha(\Xvec)-1)\la \varthetavec, \Xvec\ra \\ &\leq \E |\alpha(\Xvec)-1||\la \varthetavec, \Xvec\ra| & \\ &\leq \E \lambda \norm{\Xvec} \norm{\varthetavec}\norm{\Xvec} & \text{by \eqref{eq:abs_alpha_bound} and Cauchy-Schwarz} \\ & = \lambda \E \norm{\Xvec}^2 & \norm{\varthetavec} =1 \\ &\leq \lambda v, \end{align*}\]

demonstrating that the second term in \eqref{eq:thres_decomp} is bounded by \(\lambda v\).

Bounding (i)

To handle term (i), we appeal to PAC-Bayesian techniques. (This was Catoni and Giulini’s big insight: the ability to use PAC-Bayesian arguments in estimation problems). We’ll use the following bound:

Lemma 1. Let \(f:\cX \times \Theta\to\Re\) be a measurable function. Fix a prior \(\nu\) over \(\Theta\). Then, with probability \(1-\alpha\) over \(P\), for all distributions \(\rho\) over \(\Theta\),

\[\sum_{i\leq t} \int_{\Theta} f(\Xvec_i,\thetavec) \rho(\d\thetavec) \leq \sum_{i\leq t}\int_{\Theta} \log\E e^{ f(\Xvec,\thetavec)} \rho(\d\thetavec)+ \kl(\rho\|\nu) + \log\frac{1}{\alpha}.\]

We won’t prove this bound. It’s a standard result and appears in Catoni’s treatise on PAC-Bayesian theory.

Let’s apply this result with the function \(f(\Xvec, \thetavec) = \lambda\la \thetavec, \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres\ra\). Keeping in mind that

\[\E_{\thetavec\sim\rho_{\varthetavec}}\la \thetavec ,\thres(\Xvec_i)-\muvec^\thres\ra = \la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec_i) - \muvec^\thres\ra,\]

we obtain that with probability \(1-\alpha\),

\[\begin{align} \label{eq:pb_mgf_applied} & \sup_{\varthetavec\in\sd}\sum_{i\leq t} \lambda\la\varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec_i) - \muvec^\thres \ra \le \sum_{i\leq t} \E_{\thetavec\sim\rho_{\varthetavec}}\log \E\left\{ e^{\lambda \la \thetavec, \thres(\Xvec_i) - \muvec^\thres \ra }\right\} + \frac{\beta}{2} + \log\frac{1}{\alpha}. \tag{4} \end{align}\]

Next, we bound the right hand side of \eqref{eq:pb_mgf_applied}. To begin, notice that Jensen’s inequality gives

\[\begin{align*} &\quad \int \log \E_{\Xvec\sim P}\left\{ e^{\lambda \la \thetavec, \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres \ra } \right\} \rho_{\varthetavec}(\d \thetavec) \\ &\le \log \int \E_{\Xvec\sim P}\left\{ e^{\lambda \la\thetavec, \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres \ra } \right\} \rho_{\varthetavec}(\d \thetavec) \\ &= \log \E_{\Xvec\sim P}\left\{ \int e^{ \lambda\la \thetavec, \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres \ra } \rho_{\varthetavec}(\d \thetavec) \right\} \\ &= \log \E \exp\left(\lambda\la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres \ra + \frac{\lambda^2}{2\beta} \| \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres \|^2 \right), \end{align*}\]

where the final line uses the usual closed-form expression of the multivariate Gaussian MGF. Define the functions on \(\mathbb R\)

\[g_1(x) := \frac{1}{x}(e^x-1),\]


\[g_2(x) := \frac{2}{x^2}(e^x-x-1),\]

(with \(g_1(0) = g_2(0) = 1\) by continuous extension). Both \(g_1\) and \(g_2\) are increasing. Notice that

\[\begin{equation} \label{eq:ex+y} e^{x+y} = 1 + x+ \frac{x^2}{2}g_2(x) + g_1(y)ye^x. \tag{5} \end{equation}\]

Consider setting \(x\) and \(y\) to be the two terms in the CGF above, i.e.,

\[x = \lambda\la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres\ra,\] \[y = \frac{\lambda^2}{2\beta} \| \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres \|^2,\]

where we recall that \(\varthetavec\in\sd\). Before applying \eqref{eq:ex+y} we would like to develop upper bounds on \(x\) and \(y\). Observe that

\[\begin{equation*} \norm{\thres(\Xvec)} = \frac{\lambda\norm{\Xvec} \wedge 1}{\lambda} \leq \frac{1}{\lambda}, \end{equation*}\]

and consequently,

\[\norm{\muvec^\thres} = \norm{\E\thres(\Xvec)} \leq \E\norm{\thres(\Xvec)} \leq \frac{1}{\lambda},\]

by Jensen’s inequality. Therefore, by Cauchy-Schwarz and the triangle inequality,

\[x \leq \lambda\norm{\varthetavec}\norm{\thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres} \leq \lambda(\norm{\thres(\Xvec)} + \norm{\muvec^\thres})\leq 2.\]

Via similar reasoning, we can bound \(y\) as

\[\begin{align*} y \leq \frac{\lambda^2}{2\beta}(\norm{\thres(\Xvec)}+\norm{\muvec^\thres})^2 \leq \frac{2}{\beta}. \end{align*}\]

Finally, substituting in these values of \(x\) and \(y\) to \eqref{eq:ex+y}, taking expectations, and using the fact that \(g_1\) and \(g_2\) are increasing gives

\[\begin{align*} & \quad \E \left[\exp\left(\la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres \ra + \frac{1}{2\beta} \| \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres \|^2 \right) \right] \\ &\leq 1 + \lambda\E [\la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres\ra] + g_2\left(2\right)\frac{\lambda^2}{2}\E[\la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres\ra^2 ] \\ &\qquad + g_1\left(\frac{2}{\beta}\right )\frac{\lambda^2 e^{2}}{2\beta}\E[\norm{\thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres}^2] \\ &\leq 1 + g_2\left(2\right)\frac{\lambda^2}{2}\E[\norm{\thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres}^2 ] + g_1\left(\frac{2}{\beta}\right )\frac{\lambda^2 e^{2}}{2\beta}\E[\norm{\thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres}^2], \end{align*}\]

where we’ve used that \(\E[\thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres]= \bs{0}\). Denote by \(\Xvec'\) an iid copy of \(\Xvec\). We can bound the norm as follows:

\[\begin{align*} \E[\norm{\thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres}^2 ] & = \E [\norm{\thres(\Xvec) }^2 ]- \norm{\muvec^\thres}^2 \\ & = \frac{1}{2} \E \left[ \norm{\thres(\Xvec) }^2 - 2\la \thres(\Xvec), \muvec^\thres \ra + \E [\norm{\thres(\Xvec) }^2] \right] \\ & =\frac{1}{2} \E_{\Xvec} \bigg[\norm{\thres(\Xvec) }^2 - 2\la \thres(\Xvec), \E_{\Xvec'} [\thres(\Xvec') ]\ra + \E_{\Xvec'} \left[\norm{\thres(\Xvec') }^2 \right]\bigg] \\ & = \frac{1}{2} \E_{\Xvec, \Xvec'} \left[\norm{\thres(\Xvec) - \thres(\Xvec')}^2\right] \\ & \le \frac{1}{2} \E_{\Xvec, \Xvec'} \left[\norm{\Xvec - \Xvec'}^2\right] \\ &= \E \norm{ \Xvec - \E \Xvec }^2 \le \E \norm{\Xvec}^2 \le v, \end{align*}\]

where the first inequality uses the basic fact from convex analysis that, for a closed a convex set \(D\subset \Re^n\) and any \(\bs{x},\bs{y}\in \Re^n\),

\[\begin{equation*} \norm{\Pi_D (\bs{x}) - \Pi_D(\bs{y})} \leq \norm{\bs{x}-\bs{y}}, \end{equation*}\]

where \(\Pi_D\) is the projection onto \(D\). We have therefore shown that

\[\begin{align*} &\int \log \E_{\Xvec\sim P}\left\{ e^{ \lambda \la\thetavec, \thres(\Xvec) - \muvec^\thres \ra }\right\} \rho_{\varthetavec}(\d \thetavec) \\ &\leq \log\left\{1 + g_2\left(2\right)\frac{\lambda^2 v}{2} + g_1\left(\frac{2}{\beta}\right)\frac{\lambda^2e^{2}}{2\beta}v\right\} \\ &\leq g_2\left(2\right)\frac{\lambda^2 v}{2} + g_1\left(\frac{2}{\beta}\right)\frac{\lambda^2e^{2}}{2\beta}v \\ &= v\frac{\lambda^2}{4}\left\{e^{2/\beta + 2} -3\right\} \\ &\leq \frac{1}{4}v\lambda^2 e^{2/\beta + 2}, \end{align*}\]

Dividing both sides of \eqref{eq:pb_mgf_applied} by \(\lambda\) and bounding the right hand side via the above display, we’ve shown that with probability \(1-\alpha\),

\[\begin{align} \label{eq:bound_i} & \sup_{\varthetavec\in\sd}\sum_{i=1}^n \la\varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec_i) - \muvec^\thres \ra \le \frac{n}{4}v\lambda e^{2/\beta + 2} + \frac{\beta}{2\lambda} + \frac{\log(1/\alpha)}{\lambda}. \tag{6} \end{align}\]

The main result

To obtain the main result, we apply \eqref{eq:muvec-mu-decomp} with the bound on term (i) and the bound on term (ii) to obtain that with probability \(1-\alpha\),

\[\begin{align*} \norm{\widehat{\muvec} - \muvec} &= \sup_{\varthetavec\in\sd}\frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^n \la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec_i) - \muvec\ra \\ &= \sup_{\varthetavec\in\sd} \frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^n \bigg(\la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec_i) - \muvec^\thres\ra + \la\varthetavec, \muvec^\thres - \muvec\ra \bigg) \\ &= \sup_{\varthetavec\in\sd}\frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^n \la \varthetavec, \thres(\Xvec_i) - \muvec^\thres\ra + \sup_{\varthetavec\in\sd} \frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^n \la\varthetavec, \muvec^\thres - \muvec\ra \\ &\leq \frac{1}{4}v\lambda e^{2/\beta + 2} + \frac{\beta}{2n\lambda} + \frac{\log(1/\alpha)}{n\lambda} + \lambda v. \end{align*}\]

Taking \(\beta=1\) and

\[\lambda \asymp \sqrt{\frac{\log(1/\alpha)}{nv}},\]

we obtain the high probability bound

\[\norm{\widehat{\muvec} - \muvec} \lesssim \sqrt{\frac{v\log(1/\alpha)}{n}}.\]

Recall that sub-Gaussian estimators have bounds which scale as

\[O\left(\sqrt{\frac{\lambda_{\max}\log(1/\alpha)}{n}} + \sqrt{\frac{\Tr(\Sigma)}{n}}\right),\]

where \(\lambda_{\max} = \lambda_{\max}(\Sigma)\) is the maximum eigenvalue of the covariance matrix. Since \(\lambda_{\max} \leq \Tr(\Sigma) \leq v\), the width of the bound for the Catoni-Giulini estimator is larger than the median-of-means estimator. Depending on the distribution, however, they can be close.

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