Oral Session 3: Theory

Moderator: Satyen Kale

Wed 8 Dec 8 a.m. PST — 9 a.m. PST


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Wed 8 Dec. 8:00 - 8:15 PST

Efficient First-Order Contextual Bandits: Prediction, Allocation, and Triangular Discrimination

Dylan Foster · Akshay Krishnamurthy

A recurring theme in statistical learning, online learning, and beyond is that faster convergence rates are possible for problems with low noise, often quantified by the performance of the best hypothesis; such results are known as first-order or small-loss guarantees. While first-order guarantees are relatively well understood in statistical and online learning, adapting to low noise in contextual bandits (and more broadly, decision making) presents major algorithmic challenges. In a COLT 2017 open problem, Agarwal, Krishnamurthy, Langford, Luo, and Schapire asked whether first-order guarantees are even possible for contextual bandits and---if so---whether they can be attained by efficient algorithms. We give a resolution to this question by providing an optimal and efficient reduction from contextual bandits to online regression with the logarithmic (or, cross-entropy) loss. Our algorithm is simple and practical, readily accommodates rich function classes, and requires no distributional assumptions beyond realizability. In a large-scale empirical evaluation, we find that our approach typically outperforms comparable non-first-order methods.On the technical side, we show that the logarithmic loss and an information-theoretic quantity called the triangular discrimination play a fundamental role in obtaining first-order guarantees, and we combine this observation with new refinements to the regression oracle reduction framework of Foster and Rakhlin (2020). The use of triangular discrimination yields novel results even for the classical statistical learning model, and we anticipate that it will find broader use.

Wed 8 Dec. 8:15 - 8:20 PST


Wed 8 Dec. 8:20 - 8:35 PST

Bellman-consistent Pessimism for Offline Reinforcement Learning

Tengyang Xie · Ching-An Cheng · Nan Jiang · Paul Mineiro · Alekh Agarwal

The use of pessimism, when reasoning about datasets lacking exhaustive exploration has recently gained prominence in offline reinforcement learning. Despite the robustness it adds to the algorithm, overly pessimistic reasoning can be equally damaging in precluding the discovery of good policies, which is an issue for the popular bonus-based pessimism. In this paper, we introduce the notion of Bellman-consistent pessimism for general function approximation: instead of calculating a point-wise lower bound for the value function, we implement pessimism at the initial state over the set of functions consistent with the Bellman equations. Our theoretical guarantees only require Bellman closedness as standard in the exploratory setting, in which case bonus-based pessimism fails to provide guarantees. Even in the special case of linear function approximation where stronger expressivity assumptions hold, our result improves upon a recent bonus-based approach by $\mathcal O(d)$ in its sample complexity (when the action space is finite). Remarkably, our algorithms automatically adapt to the best bias-variance tradeoff in the hindsight, whereas most prior approaches require tuning extra hyperparameters a priori.

Wed 8 Dec. 8:35 - 8:40 PST


Wed 8 Dec. 8:40 - 8:55 PST

A Compositional Atlas of Tractable Circuit Operations for Probabilistic Inference

Antonio Vergari · YooJung Choi · Anji Liu · Stefano Teso · Guy Van den Broeck

Circuit representations are becoming the lingua franca to express and reason about tractable generative and discriminative models. In this paper, we show how complex inference scenarios for these models that commonly arise in machine learning---from computing the expectations of decision tree ensembles to information-theoretic divergences of sum-product networks---can be represented in terms of tractable modular operations over circuits. Specifically, we characterize the tractability of simple transformations---sums, products, quotients, powers, logarithms, and exponentials---in terms of sufficient structural constraints of the circuits they operate on, and present novel hardness results for the cases in which these properties are not satisfied. Building on these operations, we derive a unified framework for reasoning about tractable models that generalizes several results in the literature and opens up novel tractable inference scenarios.

Wed 8 Dec. 8:55 - 9:00 PST