Approximation Algorithms for Restless Bandit Problems

Sudipto Guha, Kamesh Munagala, Peng Shi

The restless bandit problem is one of the most well-studied generalizations of the celebrated stochastic multi-armed bandit problem in decision theory. In its ultimate generality, the restless bandit problem is known to be PSPACE-Hard to approximate to any non-trivial factor, and little progress has been made despite its importance in modeling activity allocation under uncertainty. We consider a special case that we call Feedback MAB, where the reward obtained by playing each of n independent arms varies according to an underlying on/off Markov process whose exact state is only revealed when the arm is played. The goal is to design a policy for playing the arms in order to maximize the infinite horizon time average expected reward. This problem is also an instance of a Partially Observable Markov Decision Process (POMDP), and is widely studied in wireless scheduling and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) routing. Unlike the stochastic MAB problem, the Feedback MAB problem does not admit to greedy index-based optimal policies. We develop a novel and general duality-based algorithmic technique that yields a surprisingly simple and intuitive 2+epsilon-approximate greedy policy to this problem. We then define a general sub-class of restless bandit problems that we term Monotone bandits, for which our policy is a 2-approximation. Our technique is robust enough to handle generalizations of these problems to incorporate various side-constraints such as blocking plays and switching costs. This technique is also of independent interest for other restless bandit problems. By presenting the first (and efficient) O(1) approximations for non-trivial instances of restless bandits as well as of POMDPs, our work initiates the study of approximation algorithms in both these contexts.

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