Uncertainty quantification (UQ) tasks, such as model calibration, uncertainty propagation, and optimization under uncertainty, typically require several thousand evaluations of the underlying computer codes. To cope with the cost of simulations, one replaces the real response surface with a cheap surrogate based, e.g., on polynomial chaos expansions, neural networks, support vector machines, or Gaussian processes (GP). However, the number of simulations required to learn a generic multivariate response grows exponentially as the input dimension increases. This curse of dimensionality can only be addressed, if the response exhibits some special structure that can be discovered and exploited. A wide range of physical responses exhibit a special structure known as an active subspace (AS). An AS is a linear manifold of the stochastic space characterized by maximal response variation. The idea is that one should first identify this low dimensional manifold, project the high-dimensional input onto it, and then link the projection to the output. If the dimensionality of the AS is low enough, then learning the link function is a much easier problem than the original problem of learning a high-dimensional function. The classic approach to discovering the AS requires gradient information, a fact that severely limits its applicability. Furthermore, and partly because of its reliance to gradients, it is not able to handle noisy observations. The latter is an essential trait if one wants to be able to propagate uncertainty through stochastic simulators, e.g., through molecular dynamics codes. In this work, we develop a probabilistic version of AS which is gradient-free and robust to observational noise. Our approach relies on a novel Gaussian process regression with built-in dimensionality reduction. In particular, the AS is represented as an orthogonal projection matrix that serves as yet another covariance function hyper-parameter to be estimated from the data. To train the model, we design a two-step maximum likelihood optimization procedure that ensures the orthogonality of the projection matrix by exploiting recent results on the Stiefel manifold, i.e., the manifold of matrices with orthogonal columns. The additional benefit of our probabilistic formulation, is that it allows us to select the dimensionality of the AS via the Bayesian information criterion. We validate our approach by showing that it can discover the right AS in synthetic examples without gradient information using both noiseless and noisy observations. We demonstrate that our method is able to discover the same AS as the classical approach in a challenging one-hundred-dimensional problem involving an elliptic stochastic partial differential equation with random conductivity. Finally, we use our approach to study the effect of geometric and material uncertainties in the propagation of solitary waves in a one dimensional granular system.

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