Talk: (English)

Deriving Probabilistic Programming using Denotational Design

It is fairly well-known that discrete probability distributions form a monad, and so probabilistic programs can be written monadically. The monadic operation definitions look quite unlike most other monads, and one may wonder how they might emerge from familiar, generally useful principles. This talk illustrates denotational design by deriving probability distributions from the simpler and more familiar function monad. Distribution operations are required to satisfy a standard set of equations (as a “monad homomorphism”), the solution of which is a correct implementation of probabilistic computation. As usual with denotational design, the code then follows inevitably. The only creative decision is the function/distribution relationship, which is simple (while pleasantly non-computable) and intuitively compelling.

Continuous distributions have a very similar specification. Moreover, probabilistic computation itself turns out to generalize much further while retaining simplicity. Other specializations include general convolution and efficient language recognition.

Conal Elliott


Conal Elliott is a Distinguished Scientist at Target. Conal explores elegant and principled techniques from math and programming language theory for building fast, correct, and beautiful software, now with applications including machine learning and other large-scale optimization problems. Much of his current work is based on category theory, particularly automatic translation of Haskell programs into various categories for enhanced abilities such as automatic differentiation and for massively parallel execution on GPUs or FPGAs. Conal invented the paradigm now known as “functional reactive programming” in the early 1990s, and then pioneered compilation techniques for high-performance, high-level embedded domain-specific languages, with applications including 2D and 3D computer graphics.