Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 32 (NeurIPS 2019)
My Phan, Yasin Abbasi Yadkori, Justin Domke
We study the effects of approximate inference on the performance of Thompson sampling in the $k$-armed bandit problems. Thompson sampling is a successful algorithm for online decision-making but requires posterior inference, which often must be approximated in practice. We show that even small constant inference error (in $\alpha$-divergence) can lead to poor performance (linear regret) due to under-exploration (for $\alpha<1$) or over-exploration (for $\alpha>0$) by the approximation. While for $\alpha > 0$ this is unavoidable, for $\alpha \leq 0$ the regret can be improved by adding a small amount of forced exploration even when the inference error is a large constant.