The Power of Adaptivity in Identifying Statistical Alternatives

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 29 (NIPS 2016)

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Kevin G. Jamieson, Daniel Haas, Benjamin Recht


This paper studies the trade-off between two different kinds of pure exploration: breadth versus depth. We focus on the most biased coin problem, asking how many total coin flips are required to identify a ``heavy'' coin from an infinite bag containing both ``heavy'' coins with mean $\theta_1 \in (0,1)$, and ``light" coins with mean $\theta_0 \in (0,\theta_1)$, where heavy coins are drawn from the bag with proportion $\alpha \in (0,1/2)$. When $\alpha,\theta_0,\theta_1$ are unknown, the key difficulty of this problem lies in distinguishing whether the two kinds of coins have very similar means, or whether heavy coins are just extremely rare. While existing solutions to this problem require some prior knowledge of the parameters $\theta_0,\theta_1,\alpha$, we propose an adaptive algorithm that requires no such knowledge yet still obtains near-optimal sample complexity guarantees. In contrast, we provide a lower bound showing that non-adaptive strategies require at least quadratically more samples. In characterizing this gap between adaptive and nonadaptive strategies, we make connections to anomaly detection and prove lower bounds on the sample complexity of differentiating between a single parametric distribution and a mixture of two such distributions.