Fairness in Learning: Classic and Contextual Bandits

Matthew Joseph, Michael Kearns, Jamie Morgenstern, Aaron Roth

We introduce the study of fairness in multi-armed bandit problems. Our fairness definition can be interpreted as demanding that given a pool of applicants (say, for college admission or mortgages), a worse applicant is never favored over a better one, despite a learning algorithm's uncertainty over the true payoffs. We prove results of two types.

First, in the important special case of the classic stochastic bandits problem (i.e., in which there are no contexts), we provide a provably fair algorithm based on "chained" confidence intervals, and provide a cumulative regret bound with a cubic dependence on the number of arms. We further show that any fair algorithm must have such a dependence. When combined with regret bounds for standard non-fair algorithms such as UCB, this proves a strong separation between fair and unfair learning, which extends to the general contextual case.

In the general contextual case, we prove a tight connection between fairness and the KWIK (Knows What It Knows) learning model: a KWIK algorithm for a class of functions can be transformed into a provably fair contextual bandit algorithm, and conversely any fair contextual bandit algorithm can be transformed into a KWIK learning algorithm. This tight connection allows us to provide a provably fair algorithm for the linear contextual bandit problem with a polynomial dependence on the dimension, and to show (for a different class of functions) a worst-case exponential gap in regret between fair and non-fair learning algorithms