In [5], a nonlinear generative model (1) was estimated by ensemble learning and the method was called nonlinear factor analysis (NFA). A more recent version with an analytical cost function and a linear computational complexity, is called hierarchical nonlinear factor analysis (HNFA) [1]. In many respects HNFA is similar to NFA. The posterior approximation, for instance, was chosen to be maximally factorial for the sake of computational efficiency and the terms were restricted to be Gaussian.

In NFA, a multi-layer perceptron (MLP) network with one hidden layer was used for modelling the nonlinear mapping :

where and are weight matrices, and are bias vectors and the activation function operates on each element separately. The key idea in HNFA is to introduce latent variables before the nonlinearities and thus split the mapping (3) into two parts:

where and are Gaussian noise terms and the nonlinearity again operates on each element separately. Note that we have included a short-cut mapping from sources to observations. This means that hidden nodes only need to model the deviations from linearity.

Learning is unsupervised and thus differs in many ways from standard backpropagation. Each step in learning tries to minimise the cost function (2). In NFA, the sources are updated while keeping the mapping constant and vice versa. The computational complexity is proportional to the number of paths from sources to the data, i.e. the product of sizes of the three layers. In HNFA, all terms of are updated one at a time. The computational complexity is linear with the number of connections in the model and thus HNFA scales better than NFA. In both algorithms, the update steps are repeated for several thousands of times per parameter.

In NFA, neither the posterior mean nor the variance of over can be computed analytically. The approximation based on Taylor series expansion may be inaccurate if the posterior variance for the input of the hidden nodes grows too large. This may be the source of the instability observed in some simulations. Preliminary experiments suggest that it may be possible to fix the problem at the expense of efficiency.

In HNFA, the posterior mean and variance of the mappings in (4) and (5) have analytic expressions. This is possible at the expense of assuming independencies of the extra latent variables in the posterior approximation . The assumption increases the misfit between the approximated and the true posterior. Minimisation of (2) pushes the solution in a direction where the misfit would be smaller. In [13], it is shown how this can lead to suboptimal separation in linear ICA. It is difficult to analyse the situation in nonlinear models, but it can be expected that models with fewer simultaneously active hidden nodes and thus more linear mappings are favoured. This should lead to conservative estimates of the nonlinearity of the model.

Since HNFA is built from simple blocks introduced in
[14], learning the structure^{2} becomes
easier. The cost function (2) relates to the model evidence
and can thus be used to compare
structures. The model is built in stages starting from linear FA,
i.e. HNFA without hidden nodes. See [1] for
further details.