(09/09/16) Dynamics and phase transitions of online sparse PCA in high dimensions

September 9, 2016

In a recent paper (arXiv:1609.02191), we study the dynamics of an online algorithm for learning a sparse leading eigenvector from samples generated from a spiked covariance model. This algorithm combines the classical Oja's method for online PCA with an element-wise nonlinearity at each iteration to promote sparsity. In the high-dimensional limit, the joint empirical measure of the underlying sparse eigenvector and its estimate provided by the algorithm is shown to converge weakly to a deterministic, measure-valued process. This scaling limit is characterized as the unique solution of a nonlinear PDE, and it provides exact information regarding the asymptotic performance of the algorithm. For example, performance metrics such as the cosine similarity and the misclassification rate in sparse support recovery can be obtained by examining the limiting dynamics. A steady-state analysis of the nonlinear PDE also reveals an interesting phase transition phenomenon. Although our analysis is asymptotic in nature, numerical simulations show that the theoretical predictions are accurate for moderate signal dimensions.