The Convex Geometry of Inverse Problems

Professor Ben Recht
Professor, University of California, Berkeley
Given on: Oct. 31st, 2013


Deducing the state or structure of a system from partial, noisy measurements is a fundamental task throughout the sciences and engineering. The resulting inverse problems are often ill-posed because there are fewer measurements available than the ambient dimension of the model to be estimated. In practice, however, many interesting signals or models contain few degrees of freedom relative to their ambient dimension. For example, a small number of genes may constitute the signature of a disease, very few parameters may specify the correlation structure of a time series, or a sparse collection of geometric constraints may determine a network configuration. Discovering, leveraging, or recognizing such low-dimensional structure plays an important role in making inverse problems well-posed.

In this talk, I will propose a unified approach to transform notions of simplicity and latent low-dimensionality into convex penalty functions. This approach builds on the success of generalizing compressed sensing to matrix completion and greatly extends the catalog of objects and structures that can be recovered from partial information. I will focus on a suite of data analysis algorithms designed to decompose general signals into sums of atoms from a simple — but not necessarily discrete — set. These algorithms are derived in an optimization framework that encompasses previous methods based on l1-norm minimization and nuclear norm minimization for recovering sparse vectors and low-rank matrices. I will provide sharp estimates of the number of generic measurements required for exact and robust estimation of a variety of structured models. I will contextualize these results in several example applications.


Benjamin Recht is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences and the Department of Statistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Ben was previously an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ben received his B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Chicago, and received a M.S. and PhD from the MIT Media Laboratory. After completing his doctoral work, he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for the Mathematics of Information at Caltech. He is the recipient of an NSF Career Award, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, and the 2012 SIAM/MOS Lagrange Prize in Continuous Optimization.