Embracing the EM algorithm: One continuous response


I’m currently working on a project that revolves around the EM algorithm, and am finally realizing the power of this machinery. It really is like that movie with Jim Carrey where he can’t stop seeing the number 23 everywhere, except for me it’s the EM algorithm. Apparently this is called THE BAADER-MEINHOF PHENOMENON, oooh that’s fancy. You’ve probably seen the EM algorithm around too – though perhaps you didn’t know it. It’s commonly used for estimation with missing data. A modified EM algorithm (EMis) is used by the Amelia library in R. The EM algorithm also underpins latent variable models, which makes sense because latent variables are really missing observations when you think about it, right?! The more I learn about statistics, the more I realize most things are really missing data problems… cough potential outcomes cough

Anyways, I was previously taught the EM algorithm using the classic multinomial example. This is a great teaching tool, but I’ve never run into a situation like this in my life (yet). But, I do run into mixture distributions a surprising amount – mostly when investigating heterogeneity within patient populations. There’s a whole textbook on this, see: Medical Applications of Finite Mixture Models. The EM algorithm makes a lot more sense to me in the context of mixture models:

  • We sample a group of patients and observe their response.
  • We notice a bimodal structure in the response distribution.
  • We hypothesize the observed distribution actually corresponds to two subpopulations or “classes.”
  • We don’t know who belongs to which subpopulation.
  • We estimate the probability of latent class membership using the EM algorithm.

Wouldn’t ya know it, this is unsupervised clustering.

In this blog post, I motivate the EM algorithm in the context of a two-component Gaussian mixture model. A thorough walkthrough of the underlying theory is provided. In this case, estimators take a nice closed form, but this is rarely the case for complex problems encountered in practice. R code for implementating the EM algorithm using the closed form estimators is provided. I also demonstrate how this model can be easily fit using the flexmix library.

Figure: A two-component Gaussian mixture density.

Figure: A two-component Gaussian mixture density.

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