Maria-Florina F. Balcan, Tuomas Sandholm, Ellen Vitercik
The design of revenue-maximizing combinatorial auctions, i.e. multi item auctions over bundles of goods, is one of the most fundamental problems in computational economics, unsolved even for two bidders and two items for sale. In the traditional economic models, it is assumed that the bidders' valuations are drawn from an underlying distribution and that the auction designer has perfect knowledge of this distribution. Despite this strong and oftentimes unrealistic assumption, it is remarkable that the revenue-maximizing combinatorial auction remains unknown. In recent years, automated mechanism design has emerged as one of the most practical and promising approaches to designing high-revenue combinatorial auctions. The most scalable automated mechanism design algorithms take as input samples from the bidders' valuation distribution and then search for a high-revenue auction in a rich auction class. In this work, we provide the first sample complexity analysis for the standard hierarchy of deterministic combinatorial auction classes used in automated mechanism design. In particular, we provide tight sample complexity bounds on the number of samples needed to guarantee that the empirical revenue of the designed mechanism on the samples is close to its expected revenue on the underlying, unknown distribution over bidder valuations, for each of the auction classes in the hierarchy. In addition to helping set automated mechanism design on firm foundations, our results also push the boundaries of learning theory. In particular, the hypothesis functions used in our contexts are defined through multi stage combinatorial optimization procedures, rather than simple decision boundaries, as are common in machine learning.