Automatic Propagation of Uncertainty with AD

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This post and series is a walk-through of the implementation of my uncertain library, now on hackage!

Some of my favorite Haskell “tricks” involve working with exotic numeric types with custom “overloaded” numeric functions and literals that let us work with data in surprisingly elegant and expressive ways.

Here is one example — from my work in experimental physics and statistics, we often deal with experimental/sampled values with inherent uncertainty. If you ever measure something to be 12.3\,\mathrm{cm}, that doesn’t mean it’s 12.300000\,\mathrm{cm} — it means that it’s somewhere between 12.2\,\mathrm{cm} and 12.4\,\mathrm{cm}…and we don’t know exactly. We can write it as 12.3 \pm 0.1\,\mathrm{cm}. The interesting thing happens when we try to add, multiply, divide numbers with uncertainty. What happens when you “add” 12 \pm 3 and 19 \pm 6?

The initial guess might be 31 \pm 9, because one is \pm 3 and the other is \pm 6. But! If you actually do experiments like this several times, you’ll see that this isn’t the case. If you tried this out experimentally and simulate several hundred trials, you’ll see that the answer is actually something like 31 \pm 7. (We’ll explain why later, but feel free to stop reading this article now and try this out yourself!1)

Let’s write ourselves a Haskell data type that lets us work with “numbers with inherent uncertainty”:

ghci> let x = 14.6 +/- 0.8
ghci> let y = 31   +/- 2
ghci> x + y
46 +/- 2
ghci> x * y
450 +/- 40
ghci> sqrt (x + y)
6.8 +/- 0.2
ghci> logBase y x
0.78 +/- 0.02
ghci> log (x**y)
85.9 +/- 0.3

Along the way, we’ll also learn how to harness the power of awesome ad library, a library used in implementing back-propagation and other optimization algorithms, to analyze numerical functions in a mathematical way and break down their derivatives and gradients.

You can follow along with the source code, which is actually a stack executable! If you download the source and you have stack installed, you can run it (and run the tests above) as an executable:

$ ./Uncertain.hs

Otherwise, you can run it directly with stack (using runhaskell) and the linear and ad packages installed…or load it up with stack ghci to play with it. If you want to be sure to reproduce the behavior, this article was written under stackage snapshot lts-5.15.

Dealing with Uncertainty Precisely

First of all, let’s think about why adding two “uncertain” values doesn’t involve simply adding the uncertainties linearly. (If you don’t care about the math and just want to get on to the Haskell, feel free to skip this section!)

If I have a value 16 \pm 3 (maybe I have a ruler whose ticks are 3 units apart, or an instrument that produces measurements with 3 units of noise), it either means that it’s a little below 16 or a little above 16. If I have an independently sampled value 25 \pm 4, it means that it’s a little below 25 or a little above 25.

What happens if I want to think about their sum? Well, it’s going to be somewhere around 41. But, the uncertainty won’t be \pm 7. It would only be \pm 7 if the errors in the two values are always aligned. Only if or when every “little bit above” 16 error lines up perfectly with a “little bit above” 25 error, and when every single “little bit below” 16 error lines up perfectly with a “little bit above” 25 error, would you really get something that is \pm 7. But, because the two values are sampled independently, you shouldn’t expect such alignment. So, you’ll get an uncertainty that’s less than \pm 7. In fact, it’ll actually be around \pm 5.

In general, we find that for independent X and Y:



\operatorname{Var}[aX + bY + c] = a^2 \sigma_X^2 + b^2 \sigma_Y^2

Where \sigma_X^2 is the variance in X. We consider \sigma_X to be the standard deviation of X, or the “plus or minus” part of our numbers. In the simple case of addition, we have \operatorname{Var}[X + Y] = \sigma_X^2 + \sigma_Y^2, so our new uncertainty is \sqrt{\sigma_X^2 + \sigma_Y^2}.2

However, not all functions that combine X and Y can be expressed as simple linear combinations aX + bY + c. But! If you dig back to your days of high school calculus, you might remember a method for expressing any arbitrary function as a linear approximation – the Taylor Expansion!

In general, we can attempt to approximate any well-behaving function around a point as its tangent hyperplane:



f(x_0 + x, y_0 + y) \approx f_x(x_0, y_0) x + f_y(x_0, y_0) y + f(x_0, y_0)

Where f_x(x_0,y_0) is the first (partial) derivative with respect to x at (x_0, y_0). This gives us an approximation of f at locations close to (x_0, y_0).

Look familiar? This is exactly the form that we used earlier to calculate “combined” variance! If we approximate the functions around (\mu_X, \mu_Y), the center/expected value of X and Y, we see:



\operatorname{Var}[f(X,Y)] \approx f_x(\mu_X, \mu_Y)^2 \sigma_X^2 + f_y(\mu_X,\mu_Y)^2 \sigma_Y^2

A similar analysis can be used to figure out how the expected value changes by taking the taylor expansion to the second degree:



\operatorname{E}[f(X,Y)] \approx
f(\mu_X, \mu_Y) + \frac{1}{2}
\left[ f_{xx}(\mu_X, \mu_Y) \sigma_X^2 + f_{yy}(\mu_X, \mu_Y) \sigma_Y^2 \right]

Where f_{xx}(\mu_X, \mu_Y) is the second (partial) derivative with respect to x twice at (\mu_X, \mu_Y)

For our case of simple addition, \operatorname{E}[X + Y] = \mu_X + \mu_Y, because the second-order partials of f(x,y) = x + y are 0.

Uncertain Values in Haskell

So, how are we going to model our uncertain values in Haskell … ? With an Algebraic Data Type, of course!

-- source: https://github.com/mstksg/inCode/tree/master/code-samples/uncertain/Uncertain.hs#L18-20
data Uncert a = Un { uMean :: !a
                   , uVar  :: !a
                   }

We’ll keep track of the mean (the central point) and the variance, which is the standard deviation squared. We keep track of the variance and not the standard deviation (the “plus or minus”) because the mathematics is a bit more straightforward.

We can write a function to turn a “plus or minus” statement into an Uncert:

-- source: https://github.com/mstksg/inCode/tree/master/code-samples/uncertain/Uncertain.hs#L22-23
(+/-) :: Num a => a -> a -> Uncert a
x +/- dx = Un x (dx*dx)

Give the dx (the standard deviation) and store dx^2, the variance.

Let’s also throw in a handy helper function for “exact” values:

-- source: https://github.com/mstksg/inCode/tree/master/code-samples/uncertain/Uncertain.hs#L25-26
exact :: Num a => a -> Uncert a
exact x = x +/- 0

But, we can do better (if just for fun). We can use pattern synonyms to basically “abstract” away the data type itself, and let people pattern match on a mean and standard deviation:

-- source: https://github.com/mstksg/inCode/tree/master/code-samples/uncertain/Uncertain.hs#L29-34
-- pattern (:+/-) :: () => Floating a => a -> a -> Uncert a
-- [GHC 8.0:]
-- pattern (:+/-) :: Floating a => a -> a -> Uncert a
pattern x :+/- dx <- Un x (sqrt->dx)
  where
    x :+/- dx = Un x (dx*dx)

(Note that the type signature you need for this is different depending on if you’re in GHC 8.0 and GHC 7.10; they’re mutually incompatible. How unfortunate!)

Now, people can pattern match on x :+/- dx and receive the mean and uncertainty directly. Neat!

-- source: https://github.com/mstksg/inCode/tree/master/code-samples/uncertain/Uncertain.hs#L36-37
uStdev :: Floating a => Uncert a -> a
uStdev (_ :+/- dx) = dx

Making it Numeric

Now, time for the magic! Let’s write a Num instance!

instance Num a => Num (Uncert a) where
    fromIntegral      = exact . fromIntegral
    Un x vx + Un y vy = Un (x + y)    (vx + vy)
    Un x vx - Un y vy = Un (x - y)    (vx + vy)
    Un x vx * Un y vy = Un (x * y)    (y^2 * vx + x^2 * vy)
    negate (Un x vx)  = Un (negate x) vx
    -- ...

And…that’s it! Do the same thing for every numeric typeclass, and you get automatic propagation of uncertainty.

The Problem

But, wait — this method is definitely not ideal. It’s pretty repetitive, and involves a but of copy-and-pasting code that is slightly different in ways the typechecker can’t verify. What if we didn’t change something we were supposed to? And, if you look at the Fractional instance…

instance Fractional a => Fractional (Uncert a) where
    fromRational      = exact . fromRational
    Un x vx / Un y vy = Un (x/y + x/y^3*vy)   (x^2/y^4*vx + vy/y^2)
    recip (Un x vx)   = Un (recip x + vx/x^3) (vx / x^4)

Yikes. All that ugly and complicated numerical code that the typechecker can’t help us with (and, honestly, I’m not very confident in the results myself!). Those are runtime bugs just waiting to happen. How do we even know that we calculated the right derivatives, and implemented the formula correctly?

What if we could reduce this boilerplate? What if we could somehow analytically compute derivatives for functions instead of computing them manually?

Automatic Differentiation

Automatic differentiation is honestly one of the coolest Haskell tricks you can show that any beginner can immediately understand. Like our trick with Uncert, it’s nice to use because of its overloaded Num/numeric typeclasses.

ghci> diff (\x -> x^2) 10       -- 2*x
20
ghci> diff (\x -> sin x) 0      -- cos x
1.0
ghci> diff (\x -> x^3 - 3*x^2 + 2*x - 4) 3  -- 3*x^2 - 6*x + 2
11

A very rough explanation about how forward-mode automatic differentiation works is that it uses a wrapper type (like ours) that defines *, negate, etc. so that they also compute the derivative(s) of the function, instead of just the result, like normal. There are a lot of nice tutorials online, like this one by Daniel Brice, if you want to follow up on this fun little subject.

Single-variable functions

And, now that we can automatically differentiate functions, we can use this knowledge directly in our implementations. Let’s define a universal “lifter” of single-variable functions.

We use the function diffs0 to get a “tower” of derivatives:

ghci> diffs0 (\x -> x^2 - 2 x^3) 4
[-112, -88, -46, -12, 0, 0, 0, 0...

The first value is actually 4^2 - 2 \times 4^3. The second is the derivative (2 x - 6x^2) at 4, the third is the second derivative 2 - 12 x at 4, then the third derivative -12, then the fourth derivative 0, etc.

We only need the actual value and the first two derivatives, so we can pattern match them as fx:dfx:ddfx:_ = diffs0 f x, the derivatives and values of the function we lift, f, around the mean x.

At that point, the equations we have from before just translate nicely:



\operatorname{E}[f(X)] = f(\mu_X) + \frac{1}{2} f_{xx}(\mu_X) \sigma_X^2



\operatorname{Var}[f(X)] = f_x(\mu_X)^2 \sigma_X^2

And we call \mu_X x and \sigma_X^2 vx, and this becomes:

y  = fx + ddfx * vx / 2
vy = dfx^2 * vx

Putting it all together:

-- source: https://github.com/mstksg/inCode/tree/master/code-samples/uncertain/Uncertain.hs#L39-47
liftU :: Fractional a
      => (forall s. AD s (Tower a) -> AD s (Tower a))
      -> Uncert a
      -> Uncert a
liftU f (Un x vx) = Un y vy
  where
    fx:dfx:ddfx:_ = diffs0 f x
    y             = fx + ddfx * vx / 2
    vy            = dfx^2 * vx

The type forall s. AD s (Tower a) -> AD s (Tower a) looks a little scary, but you can think of it as representing a function on a (like negate, (*2), etc.) that the ad library can differentiate several times — something you could use with diff0 to get a “tower” of derivatives.

And … that’s it! We can already define things like:

negate = liftU negate
recip  = liftU recip
sqrt   = liftU sqrt
sin    = liftU sin

Multivariable functions

ad also lets you work multivariable functions, too. To model multivariable functions, it takes a function from a Traversable of vales to a single value. We can use the V2 type from the linear package to pass in a two-variable function:

ghci> grad (\(V2 x y) -> x * y^2 + 3*x) (V2 3 1)
V2 4 6

The gradient of f(x, y) = x y^2 + 3x is (y^2 + 3, 2xy), which, at (3, 1), is indeed (4, 6).

The gradient gives us the first order partials, but we need the second order partials to calculate the new mean, so for that, we can use hessian:

ghci> hessian (\(V2 x y) -> x * y^2 + 3*x) (V2 3 1)
V2 (V2 0 2)
   (V2 2 6)

The hessian of a function f(x,y) is basically a matrix of second-order partial derivatives:



\begin{bmatrix}
f_{xx}(x, y) & f_{yx}(x, y) \\
f_{yx}(x, y) & f_{yy}(x, y)
\end{bmatrix}

In our case, we only care about the diagonal – the repeated double-derivatives, f_{xx} and f_{yy}. Indeed, the double-partial of our function respect to x is 0, and the double-partial with respect to y is 2x, which gives us a hessian with a diagonal (0, 6) for the input (3, 1).

The ad package generously gives us a function that lets us calculate the function’s result, its gradient, and its hessian all in one pass:

ghci> hessian' (\(V2 x y) -> x * y^2 + 3*x) (V2 3 1)
(12, V2 (4, V2 0 3)
     V2 (6, V2 2 6)
)

We can access the gradient by using fmap fst on the second component of the tuple and access the hessian by using fmap snd.

We need a couple of helpers, first — one to get the “diagonal” of our hessian, because we only care about the repeated partials:

-- source: https://github.com/mstksg/inCode/tree/master/code-samples/uncertain/Uncertain.hs#L49-53
diag :: [[a]] -> [a]
diag = \case
    []        -> []
    []   :yss -> diag (drop 1 <$> yss)
    (x:_):yss -> x : diag (drop 1 <$> yss)

And then a “dot product”, utility function, which just multiplies two lists together component-by-component and sums the results:

-- source: https://github.com/mstksg/inCode/tree/master/code-samples/uncertain/Uncertain.hs#L55-56
dot :: Num a => [a] -> [a] -> a
dot xs ys = sum (zipWith (*) xs ys)

And now we can write our multi-variate function lifter:

-- source: https://github.com/mstksg/inCode/tree/master/code-samples/uncertain/Uncertain.hs#L58-75
liftUF :: (Traversable f, Fractional a)
       => (forall s. f (AD s (Sparse a)) -> AD s (Sparse a))
       -> f (Uncert a)
       -> Uncert a
liftUF f us = Un y vy
  where
    xs          =         uMean <$> us
    vxs         = toList (uVar  <$> us)
    (fx, hgrad) = hessian' f xs
    dfxs        = fst <$> hgrad
    hess        = snd <$> hgrad
    y           = fx + partials / 2
      where
        partials = dot vxs
                 . diag
                 $ toList (fmap toList hess) -- from f (f a) to [[a]]
    vy          = dot vxs
                $ toList ((^2) <$> dfxs)

(Again, don’t mind the scary type forall s. f (AD s (Sparse a)) -> AD s (Sparse a), it’s just ad’s type for things you can use hessian' on)

And we can write some nice helper functions so we can use them more naturally:

-- source: https://github.com/mstksg/inCode/tree/master/code-samples/uncertain/Uncertain.hs#L77-90
liftU2 :: Fractional a
       => (forall s. AD s (Sparse a) -> AD s (Sparse a) -> AD s (Sparse a))
       -> Uncert a
       -> Uncert a
       -> Uncert a
liftU2 f x y = liftUF (\(V2 x' y') -> f x' y') (V2 x y)

liftU3 :: Fractional a
       => (forall s. AD s (Sparse a) -> AD s (Sparse a) -> AD s (Sparse a) -> AD s (Sparse a))
       -> Uncert a
       -> Uncert a
       -> Uncert a
       -> Uncert a
liftU3 f x y z = liftUF (\(V3 x' y' z') -> f x' y' z') (V3 x y z)

At this point, our code is pretty much complete. We can fill in the other two-argument functions from the numeric typeclasses:

(+)     = liftU2 (+)
(*)     = liftU2 (*)
(/)     = liftU2 (/)
(**)    = liftU2 (**)
logBase = liftU2 logBase

Admittedly, there’s still some slight boilerplate (that you can get rid of with some Template Haskell, maybe), but you have a lot less room for error, and a lot simpler to check over and read to make sure you didn’t miss any bugs.

Wrapping it up

The full code (with all of the numeric instances fully implemented) is up on github, which you can run and explore and test by executing it or loading it with stack ghci. I’ve added a special Show instance that “rounds” your values to as many digits that your uncertainty suggests, to give more meaningful shows.

All of what’s in this post is actually up on my uncertain package on hackage, if you want to use it in your own projects, or see how I take this and make it more robust for real-world applications. The project also has more features on top of the basic things shown here.

Verification and Accuracy

My uncertain package has a Monte Carlo module to propagate uncertainty through Monte Carlo simulations. Let’s see how the values compare!

ghci> x + y         -- Monte Carlo Results:
46 +/- 2            -- actually 46 +/- 2
ghci> x * y
450 +/- 40          -- actually 450 +/- 40
ghci> sqrt (x + y)
6.8 +/- 0.2         -- actually 6.8 +/- 0.2
ghci> logBase y x
0.78 +/- 0.02       -- actually 0.78 +/- 0.02
ghci> log (x**y)
85.9 +/- 0.3        -- actually 83 +/- 6

So, it looks like the mathematical model of uncertainty propagation matched up well with the “actual” results we gain from Monte Carlo simulations! The only one of our examples that was significantly wrong was the \operatorname{log}(x^y) example, which heavily underestimated the uncertainty by about a factor of 20. But, remember, the model was derived after dropping the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. terms of the taylor expansion for the calculation of the new uncertainty, and the 4th, 6th, etc. terms of the taylor expansion for the calculation of the new mean. For functions that have high second, third, fourth derivatives relative to the mean and the uncertainty, it’s going to be a bit off.

What next?

For an extension on the mathematics behind this method, Dan Piponi has a great article with a lot of good references for further reading on the formal method.

Going off of what we’ve done here, a simple extension of this would be to implement the Monte Carlo simulator I mentioned above, which is pretty straightforward to implement with the mwc-random package.

However, the most unsettling thing here that we never deal with is what happens correlated terms that are combined. All of our math assumed uncorrelated samples. But what happens if we have expressions that involve additions of correlated values?

For example:

ghci> let x = 14.6 +/- 0.8 in x + x
29 +/- 1
ghci> let x = 14.6 +/- 0.8 in 2*x
29 +/- 2

Unfortunately, x + x is different than 2*x. This is because x acts like an independent generator, so when you say x + x, it expands to (14.6 +/- 0.8) + (14.6 +/- 0.8), which represents the addition of two independent samples.

When you say 2*x, that represents sampling x once and doubling it. If you sample x and double it, any error in x will also be doubled. That’s why the uncertainty is greater in the 2*x version.

How can we account for correlated values that are combined in complex ways? Stay tuned for the next part of the series!3


  1. You can simulate noisy data by using uniform noise distributions, Gaussian distributions, or however manner you like that has a given expected value (mean) and “spread”. Verify by checking the standard deviation of the sums!

  2. This law actually comes from the mathematical definition of variance, so does not assume anything about the underlying distribution of the sampling — just that they are independent, and that they have defined variances.

  3. Or just look at my package :)

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