Active Importance Sampling for Variational Objectives Dominated by Rare Events: Consequences for Optimization and Generalization


Deep neural networks, when optimized with sufficient data, provide accurate representations of high-dimensional functions; in contrast, function approximation techniques that have predominated in scientific computing do not scale well with dimensionality. As a result, many high-dimensional sampling and approximation problems once thought intractable are being revisited through the lens of machine learning. While the promise of unparalleled accuracy may suggest a renaissance for applications that require parameterizing representations of complex systems, in many applications gathering sufficient data to develop such a representation remains a significant challenge. Here we introduce an approach that combines rare events sampling techniques with neural network train- ing to optimize objective functions that are dominated by rare events. We show that importance sampling reduces the asymptotic variance of the solution to a learning problem, suggesting benefits for generalization. We study our algorithm in the context of solving high-dimensional PDEs that admit a variational formulation, a problem with applications in statistical physics and implications in machine learning theory. Our numerical experiments demonstrate that we can successfully learn even with the compounding difficulties of high-dimension and rare data.