Making Contextual Decisions with Low Technical Debt

Alekh Agarwal, Sarah Bird, Markus Cozowicz, Luong Hoang, John Langford, Stephen Lee, Jiaji Li, Dan Melamed, Gal Oshri, Oswaldo Ribas, Siddhartha Sen, Alex Slivkins

May, 2017

Abstract:

Applications and systems are constantly faced with decisions that require picking from a set of actions based on contextual information. Reinforcement-based learning algorithms such as contextual bandits can be very effective in these settings, but applying them in practice is fraught with technical debt, and no general system exists that supports them completely. We address this and create the first general system for contextual learning, called the Decision Service. Existing systems often suffer from technical debt that arises from issues like incorrect data collection and weak debuggability, issues we systematically address through our ML methodology and system abstractions. The Decision Service enables all aspects of contextual bandit learning using four system abstractions which connect together in a loop: explore (the decision space), log, learn, and deploy. Notably, our new explore and log abstractions ensure the system produces correct, unbiased data, which our learner uses for online learning and to enable real-time safeguards, all in a fully reproducible manner. 

The Decision Service has a simple user interface and works with a variety of applications: we present two live production deployments for content recommendation that achieved click-through improvements of 25-30%, another with 18% revenue lift in the landing page, and ongoing applications in tech support and machine failure handling. The service makes real-time decisions and learns continuously and scalably, while significantly lowering technical debt.

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