Computational Intelligence

Model selection in an information economy: Choosing what to learn

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As online markets for the exchange of goods and services become more common, the study of markets composed, at least in part, of autonomous agents has taken on increasing importance. In contrast to traditional complete-information economic scenarios, agents that are operating in an electronic marketplace often do so under considerable uncertainty. In order to reduce their uncertainty, these agents must learn about the world around them. When an agent producer is engaged in a learning task in which data collection is costly, such as learning the preferences of a consumer population, it is faced with a classic decision problem: when to explore and when to exploit. If the agent has a limited number of chances to experiment, it must explicitly consider the cost of learning (in terms of foregone profit) against the value of the information acquired. Information goods add an additional dimension to this problem; due to their flexibility, they can be bundled and priced according to a number of different price schedules. An optimizing producer should consider the profit each price schedule can extract, as well as the difficulty of learning of this schedule. In this paper, we demonstrate the tradeoff between complexity and profitability for a number of common price schedules. We begin with a one-shot decision as to which schedule to learn. Schedules with moderate complexity are preferred in the short and medium term, as they are learned quickly, yet extract a significant fraction of the available profit. We then turn to the repeated version of this one-shot decision and show that moderate complexity schedules, in particular two-part tariff, perform well when the producer must adapt to nonstationarity in the consumer population. When a producer can dynamically change schedules as it learns, it can use an explicit decision-theoretic formulation to greedily select the schedule which appears to yield the greatest profit in the next period. By explicitly considering both the learnability and the profit extracted by different price schedules, a producer can extract more profit as it learns than if it naively chose models that are accurate once learned.