WebPPL (pronounced ‘web people’), is a small probabilistic programming language built on top of a (purely functional) subset of Javascript. The language is intended to be simple to implement, fairly pleasant to write models in, and a good intermediate target for other languages (such as Church). This page documents the language, illustrating with some very simple examples. Further examples are presented in the examples pages.

The language: A subset of Javascript

Following the notation from the Mozilla Parser API, our language consists of the subset of Javascript that can be built from the following syntax elements, each shown with an example:

Note that there are no AssignmentExpressions or looping constructs (e.g., for, while, do). This is because a purely functional language is much easier to transform into Continuation-Passing Style (CPS), which the WebPPL implementation uses to implement inference algorithms such as Enumeration and Particle Filtering. While these restrictions mean that common Javascript programming patterns aren’t possible, this subset is still universal, because we allow recursive and higher-order functions. It encourages a functional style, similar to Haskell or LISP, that is pretty easy to use (once you get used to thinking functionally!).

Here is a (very boring) program that uses most of the available syntax:

var foo = function(x) {
  var bar = Math.exp(x)
  var baz =  x==0 ? [] : [Math.log(bar), foo(x-1)]
  return baz


Using Javascript libraries

Functions from the Javascript environment that WebPPL is called from can be used in a WebPPL program, with a few restrictions. First, these external functions must be deterministic and cannot carry state from one call to another. (That is, the functions must be ‘referentially transparent’: calling obj.foo(args) must always return the same value when called with given arguments.) Second, external functions can’t be called with a WebPPL function as an argument (that is, they can’t be higher-order). Third, external functions must be invoked as the method of an object (indeed, this is the only use of object method invocation currently possible in WebPPL). So the use of Math.log() in the above example is allowed: it is a deterministic function invoked as a method of the Math object (which is a standard object in the Javascript global environment).

With random sampling

WebPPL is not just a subset of Javascript: it is a subset augmented with the ability to represent and manipulate probability distributions. We will distinguish between distributions and distribution types.

A distribution type (or constructor) takes parameters and returns a distribution. Under the hood, a distribution d has a method d.sample that returns a sample from the distribution, a method d.score that returns the log-probability of a possible sampled value, and (optionally) a method d.support that returns the support of the distribution. Of these, d.sample should not be called directly – in order for inference operators (described later) to work correctly, use the sample operator.

For example, using the built-in Bernoulli type:

sample(Bernoulli({ p: 0.5 }))

We can also visualize the distribution:

viz(Bernoulli({ p: 0.5 }))

There is a set of pre-defined distribution types including Bernoulli, RandomInteger, etc. (Since sample(Bernoulli({p: p})) is very common it is aliased to flip(p). Similarly randomInteger, and so on.) It is also possible to define new distribution types, but most distributions you will use will be either built-in or built as the marginal distribution of some computation, via inference functions (see below).

With only the ability to sample from primitive distributions and perform deterministic computations, the language is already universal! This is due to the ability to construct stochastically recursive functions. For instance we can define a geometric distribution in terms of a bernoulli distribution:

var geometric = function(p) {
  return flip(p) ? 1 + geometric(p) : 1


And inference

WebPPL is equipped with a variety of implementations of marginalization: the operation of normalizing a (sub-)computation to construct the marginal distribution on return values. These marginalization functions (which we will generally call inference functions) take a random computation represented as a function with no arguments and return the marginal distribution on return values. How they get this marginal distribution differs between inference functions, and is the topic of most of the tutorial.

As an example, consider a simple binomial distribution: the number of times that three fair coin tosses come up heads:

var binomial = function() {
  var a = sample(Bernoulli({ p: 0.5 }))
  var b = sample(Bernoulli({ p: 0.5 }))
  var c = sample(Bernoulli({ p: 0.5 }))
  return a + b + c

var binomialDist = Infer({ model: binomial })


The distribution on return values from binomial() and sample(binomialDist) are the same – but binomialDist has already collapsed out the intermediate random choices to represent this distribution as a primitive.

What if we wanted to adjust the above binomial computation to favor executions in which a or b was true? The factor keyword re-weights an execution by adding the given number to the log-probability of that execution. For instance:

var funnyBinomial = function(){
  var a = sample(Bernoulli({ p: 0.5 }))
  var b = sample(Bernoulli({ p: 0.5 }))
  var c = sample(Bernoulli({ p: 0.5 }))
  factor( (a || b) ? 0 : -2)
  return a + b + c}

var funnyBinomialDist = Infer({ model: funnyBinomial })


It is easier to build useful models (that, for instance, condition on data) with factor. But factor by itself doesn’t do anything – it interacts with marginalization functions that normalize the computation they are applied to. For this reason running a computation with factor in it at the top level – that is, not inside a marginalization operator – results in an error. Try running funnyBinomial directly….

WebPPL has several inference methods, including enumerate and MCMC. These are all implemented by providing a coroutine that receives the current continuation at sample and factor statements. We explain these ideas and techniques in the next few sections. To get an idea what you can do with WebPPL take a look at the examples on pragmatics, semantic parsing, and computer graphics; or for PPLs more generally, look at forestdb.org.

Next chapter: Exploring the executions of a random computation