The Sample Complexity of Online Contract Design


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We study the hidden-action principal-agent problem in an online setting. In each round, the principal posts a contract that specifies the payment to the agent based on each outcome. The agent then makes a strategic choice of action that maximizes her own utility, but the action is not directly observable by the principal. The principal observes the outcome and receives utility from the agent's choice of action. Based on past observations, the principal dynamically adjusts the contracts with the goal of maximizing her utility. We introduce an online learning algorithm and provide an upper bound on its Stackelberg regret. We show that when the contract space is $[0,1]^m$, the Stackelberg regret is upper bounded by $\widetilde O(\sqrt{m} \cdot T^{1-1/(2m+1)})$, and lower bounded by $\Omega(T^{1-1/(m+2)})$, where $\widetilde O$ omits logarithmic factors. This result shows that exponential-in-$m$ samples are sufficient and necessary to learn a near-optimal contract, resolving an open problem on the hardness of online contract design. Moreover, when contracts are restricted to some subset $\mathcal{F} \subset [0,1]^m$, we define an intrinsic dimension of $\mathcal{F}$ that depends on the covering number of the spherical code in the space and bound the regret in terms of this intrinsic dimension. When $\mathcal{F}$ is the family of linear contracts, we show that the Stackelberg regret grows exactly as $\Theta(T^{2/3})$. The contract design problem is challenging because the utility function is discontinuous. Bounding the discretization error in this setting has been an open problem. In this paper, we identify a limited set of directions in which the utility function is continuous, allowing us to design a new discretization method and bound its error. This approach enables the first upper bound with no restrictions on the contract and action space.
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