(Almost) Free Incentivized Exploration from Decentralized Learning Agents

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 (NeurIPS 2021)

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Chengshuai Shi, Haifeng Xu, Wei Xiong, Cong Shen


Incentivized exploration in multi-armed bandits (MAB) has witnessed increasing interests and many progresses in recent years, where a principal offers bonuses to agents to do explorations on her behalf. However, almost all existing studies are confined to temporary myopic agents. In this work, we break this barrier and study incentivized exploration with multiple and long-term strategic agents, who have more complicated behaviors that often appear in real-world applications. An important observation of this work is that strategic agents' intrinsic needs of learning benefit (instead of harming) the principal's explorations by providing "free pulls". Moreover, it turns out that increasing the population of agents significantly lowers the principal's burden of incentivizing. The key and somewhat surprising insight revealed from our results is that when there are sufficiently many learning agents involved, the exploration process of the principal can be (almost) free. Our main results are built upon three novel components which may be of independent interest: (1) a simple yet provably effective incentive-provision strategy; (2) a carefully crafted best arm identification algorithm for rewards aggregated under unequal confidences; (3) a high-probability finite-time lower bound of UCB algorithms. Experimental results are provided to complement the theoretical analysis.