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Abstract:We study computational-statistical gaps for improper learning in sparse linear regression. More specifically, given $n$ samples from a $k$-sparse linear model in dimension $d$, we ask what is the minimum sample complexity to efficiently (in time polynomial in $d$, $k$, and $n$) find a potentially dense estimate for the regression vector that achieves non-trivial prediction error on the $n$ samples. Information-theoretically this can be achieved using $\Theta(k \log (d/k))$ samples. Yet, despite its prominence in the literature, there is no polynomial-time algorithm known to achieve the same guarantees using less than $\Theta(d)$ samples without additional restrictions on the model. Similarly, existing hardness results are either restricted to the proper setting, in which the estimate must be sparse as well, or only apply to specific algorithms. We give evidence that efficient algorithms for this task require at least (roughly) $\Omega(k^2)$ samples. In particular, we show that an improper learning algorithm for sparse linear regression can be used to solve sparse PCA problems (with a negative spike) in their Wishart form, in regimes in which efficient algorithms are widely believed to require at least $\Omega(k^2)$ samples. We complement our reduction with low-degree and statistical query lower bounds for the sparse PCA problems from which we reduce. Our hardness results apply to the (correlated) random design setting in which the covariates are drawn i.i.d. from a mean-zero Gaussian distribution with unknown covariance.