Online bipartite matching is one of the most fundamental problems in the online algorithms literature. Karp, Vazirani, and Vazirani (STOC 1990) introduced an elegant algorithm for the unweighted problem that achieves an optimal competitive ratio of 1 - 1/e. Aggarwal et al. (SODA 2011) later generalized their algorithm and analysis to the vertex-weighted case. Little is known, however, about the most general edge-weighted problem aside from the trivial 1/2-competitive greedy algorithm. In this paper, we present the first online algorithm that breaks the long standing 1/2 barrier and achieves a competitive ratio of at least 0.5086. In light of the hardness result of Kapralov, Post, and Vondrák (SODA 2013) that restricts beating a 1/2 competitive ratio for the more general problem of monotone submodular welfare maximization, our result can be seen as strong evidence that edge-weighted bipartite matching is strictly easier than submodular welfare maximization in the online setting.
The main ingredient in our online matching algorithm is a novel subroutine called online correlated selection (OCS), which takes a sequence of pairs of vertices as input and selects one vertex from each pair. Instead of using a fresh random bit to choose a vertex from each pair, the OCS negatively correlates decisions across different pairs and provides a quantitative measure on the level of correlation. We believe our OCS technique is of independent interest and will find further applications in other online optimization problems.