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  1. Feature acquisition in predictive modeling is an important task in many practical applications. For example, in patient health prediction, we do not fully observe their personal features and need to dynamically select features to acquire. Our goal is to acquire a small subset of features that maximize prediction performance. Recently, some works reformulated feature acquisition as a Markov decision process and applied reinforcement learning (RL) algorithms, where the reward reflects both prediction performance and feature acquisition cost. However, RL algorithms only use zeroth-order information on the reward, which leads to slow empirical convergence, especially when there are many actions (number of features) to consider. For predictive modeling, it is possible to use first-order information on the reward, i.e., gradients, since we are often given an already collected dataset. Therefore, we propose differentiable feature acquisition (DiFA), which uses a differentiable representation of the feature selection policy to enable gradients to flow from the prediction loss to the policy parameters. We conduct extensive experiments on various real-world datasets and show that DiFA significantly outperforms existing feature acquisition methods when the number of features is large. 
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  2. In sequential recommender system applications, it is important to develop models that can capture users' evolving interest over time to successfully recommend future items that they are likely to interact with. For users with long histories, typical models based on recurrent neural networks tend to forget important items in the distant past. Recent works have shown that storing a small sketch of past items can improve sequential recommendation tasks. However, these works all rely on static sketching policies, i.e., heuristics to select items to keep in the sketch, which are not necessarily optimal and cannot improve over time with more training data. In this paper, we propose a differentiable policy for sketching (DiPS), a framework that learns a data-driven sketching policy in an end-to-end manner together with the recommender system model to explicitly maximize recommendation quality in the future. We also propose an approximate estimator of the gradient for optimizing the sketching algorithm parameters that is computationally efficient. We verify the effectiveness of DiPS on real-world datasets under various practical settings and show that it requires up to 50% fewer sketch items to reach the same predictive quality than existing sketching policies. 
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