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Modeling Recommender Ecosystems: Research Challenges at the Intersection of Mechanism Design, Reinforcement Learning and Generative Models

Martin Mladenov
Proceedings of the 38th Annual AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence (AAAI-24), Vancouver (2024) (to appear)


Modern recommender systems lie at the heart of complex ecosystems that couple the behavior of users, content providers, advertisers, and other actors. Despite this, the focus of the majority of recommender research---and most practical recommenders of any import---is on the \emph{local, myopic} optimization of the recommendations made to individual users. This comes at a significant cost to the \emph{long-term utility} that recommenders could generate for its users. We argue that explicitly modeling the incentives and behaviors of all actors in the system---and the interactions among them induced by the recommender's policy---is strictly necessary if one is to maximize the value the system brings to these actors and improve overall ecosystem ``health.'' Doing so requires: optimization over long horizons using techniques such as \emph{reinforcement learning}; making inevitable tradeoffs among the utility that can be generated for different actors using the methods of \emph{social choice}; reducing information asymmetry, while accounting for incentives and strategic behavior, using the tools of \emph{mechanism design}; better modeling of both user and item-provider behaviors by incorporating notions from \emph{behavioral economics and psychology}; and exploiting recent advances in \emph{generative and foundation models} to make these mechanisms interpretable and actionable. We propose a conceptual framework that encompasses these elements, and articulate a number of research challenges that emerge at the intersection of these different disciplines.