Bayesian meta-prior learning using Empirical Bayes
Adding domain knowledge to a learning system is known to improve results. In multi-parameter Bayesian frameworks, such knowledge is incorporated as a prior. On the other hand, the various model parameters can have different learning rates in real-world problems, especially with skewed data. Two often-faced challenges in Operation Management and Management Science applications are the absence of informative priors, and the inability to control parameter learning rates. In this study, we propose a hierarchical Empirical Bayes approach that addresses both challenges, and that can generalize to any Bayesian framework. Our method learns empirical meta-priors from the data itself, and uses them to decouple the learning rates of first-order and second-order features (or any other given feature grouping) in a Generalized Linear Model. As the first-order features are likely to have a more pronounced effect on the outcome, focusing on learning first-order weights first is likely to improve performance and convergence time. Our Empirical Bayes method clamps features in each group together and uses the deployed model’s observed data to empirically compute a hierarchical prior in hindsight. We report theoretical results for the unbiasedness, strong consistency, and optimal frequentist cumulative regret properties of our meta-prior variance estimator. We apply our method to a standard supervised learning optimization problem, as well as an online combinatorial optimization problem in a contextual bandit setting implemented in an Amazon production system. Both during simulations and live experiments, our method shows marked improvements, especially in cases of small traffic. Our findings are promising, as optimizing over sparse data is often a challenge.