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2 years ago
Reinforcement Learning for Budget Constrained Recommendations

Originally published in Netflix TechBlog, Aug 15, 2022.


This writeup is about using reinforcement learning to construct an optimal list of recommendations when the user has a finite time budget to make a decision from the list of recommendations. Working within the time budget introduces an extra resource constraint for the recommender system. It is similar to many other decision problems (for e.g. in economics and operations research) where the entity making the decision has to find tradeoffs in the face of finite resources and multiple (possibly conflicting) objectives. Although time is the most important and finite resource, we think that it is an often ignored aspect of recommendation problems.

In addition to relevance of the recommendations, time budget also determines whether users will accept a recommendation or abandon their search. Consider the scenario that a user comes to the Netflix homepage looking for something to watch. The Netflix homepage provides a large number of recommendations and the user has to evaluate them to choose what to play. The evaluation process may include trying to recognize the show from its box art, watching trailers, reading its synopsis or in some cases reading reviews for the show on some external website. This evaluation process incurs a cost that can be measured in units of time. Different shows will require different amounts of evaluation time. If it’s a popular show like Stranger Things then the user may already be aware of it and may incur very little cost before choosing to play it. Given the limited time budget, the recommendation model should construct a slate of recommendations by considering both the relevance of the items to the user and their evaluation cost. Balancing both of these aspects can be difficult as a highly relevant item may have a much higher evaluation cost and it may not fit within the user’s time budget. Having a successful slate therefore depends on the user’s time budget, relevance of each item as well as their evaluation cost. The goal for the recommendation algorithm therefore is to construct slates that have a higher chance of engagement from the user with a finite time budget. It is important to point out that the user’s time budget, like their preferences, may not be directly observable and the recommender system may have to learn that in addition to the user’s latent preferences.

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