Prophet Inequalities for Cost Minimization

Vasilis Livanos, Ruta Mehta

Prophet inequalities for rewards maximization are fundamental results from optimal stopping theory with several applications to mechanism design and online optimization. We study the cost minimization counterpart of the classical prophet inequality, where one is facing a sequence of costs $X_1, X_2, \dots, X_n$ in an online manner and must ''stop'' at some point and take the last cost seen. Given that the $X_i$'s are independent, drawn from known distributions, the goal is to devise a stopping strategy $S$ (online algorithm) that minimizes the expected cost. We first observe that if the $X_i$'s are not identically distributed, then no strategy can achieve a bounded approximation, no matter if the arrival order is adversarial or random. This leads us to consider the case where the $X_i$'s are I.I.D.. For the I.I.D. case, we give a complete characterization of the optimal stopping strategy. We show that it achieves a (distribution-dependent) constant-factor approximation to the prophet's cost for almost all distributions and that this constant is tight. In particular, for distributions for which the integral of the hazard rate is a polynomial $H(x) = \sum_{i=1}^k a_i x^{d_i}$, where $d_1 < \dots < d_k$, the approximation factor is $\lambda(d_1)$, a decreasing function of $d_1$. Furthermore, for MHR distributions, we show that this constant is at most $2$, and this is again tight. We also analyze single-threshold strategies for the cost prophet inequality problem. We design a threshold that achieves a $\operatorname{O}(\operatorname{polylog}n)$-factor approximation, where the exponent in the logarithmic factor is a distribution-dependent constant, and we show a matching lower bound. We believe that our results are of independent interest for analyzing approximately optimal (posted price-style) mechanisms for procuring items.

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