Embedded Probabilistic Programming

Oleg Kiselyov, Chung-chieh Shan. Embedded Probabilistic Programming. In Walid Mohamed Taha, editor, Domain-Specific Languages, IFIP TC 2 Working Conference, DSL 2009, Oxford, UK, July 15-17, 2009, Proceedings. Volume 5658 of Lecture Notes in Computer Science, pages 360-384, Springer, 2009. [doi]


Two general techniques for implementing a domain-specific language (DSL) with less overhead are the finally-tagless embedding of object programs and the direct-style representation of side effects. We use these techniques to build a DSL for probabilistic programming, for expressing countable probabilistic models and performing exact inference and importance sampling on them. Our language is embedded as an ordinary OCaml library and represents probability distributions as ordinary OCaml programs. We use delimited continuations to reify probabilistic programs as lazy search trees, which inference algorithms may traverse without imposing any interpretive overhead on deterministic parts of a model. We thus take advantage of the existing OCaml implementation to achieve competitive performance and ease of use. Inference algorithms can easily be embedded in probabilistic programs themselves.