Learning k-modal Distributions via Testing
C. Daskalakis and I. Diakonikolas and R. Servedio.
In ACM-SIAM Symposium on Discrete Algorithms (SODA), 2012, pp. 1371-1385.


A $k$-modal probability distribution over the domain $\{1,...,n\}$ is one whose histogram has at most $k$ ``peaks'' and ``valleys.'' Such distributions are natural generalizations of monotone ($k=0$) and unimodal ($k=1$) probability distributions, which have been intensively studied in probability theory and statistics.

In this paper we consider the problem of \emph{learning} an unknown $k$-modal distribution. The learning algorithm is given access to independent samples drawn from the $k$-modal distribution $p$, and must output a hypothesis distribution $\hat{p}$ such that with high probability the total variation distance between $p$ and $\hat{p}$ is at most $\eps.$

We give an efficient algorithm for this problem that runs in time $\poly(k,\log(n),1/\eps)$. For $k \leq \tilde{O}(\sqrt{\log n})$, the number of samples used by our algorithm is very close (within an $\tilde{O}(\log(1/\eps))$ factor) to being information-theoretically optimal. Prior to this work computationally efficient algorithms were known only for the cases $k=0,1.$

A novel feature of our approach is that our learning algorithm crucially uses a new \emph{property testing} algorithm as a key subroutine. The learning algorithm uses the property tester to efficiently decompose the $k$-modal distribution into $k$ (near)-monotone distributions, which are easier to learn.

Link to open-access full version at Theory of Computing journal

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