Theses Doctoral

Optimization under Uncertainty with Applications in Data-driven Stochastic Simulation and Rare-event Estimation

Zhang, Xinyu

For many real-world problems, optimization could only be formulated with partial information or subject to uncertainty due to reasons such as data measurement error, model misspecification, or that the formulation depends on the non-stationary future. It thus often requires one to make decisions without knowing the problem's full picture. This dissertation considers the robust optimization framework—a worst-case perspective—to characterize uncertainty as feasible regions and optimize over the worst possible scenarios. Two applications in this worst-case perspective are discussed: stochastic estimation and rare-event simulation.

Chapters 2 and 3 discuss a min-max framework to enhance existing estimators for simulation problems that involve a bias-variance tradeoff. Biased stochastic estimators, such as finite-differences for noisy gradient estimation, often contain parameters that need to be properly chosen to balance impacts from the bias and the variance. While the optimal order of these parameters in terms of the simulation budget can be readily established, the precise best values depend on model characteristics that are typically unknown in advance. We introduce a framework to construct new classes of estimators, based on judicious combinations of simulation runs on sequences of tuning parameter values, such that the estimators consistently outperform a given tuning parameter choice in the conventional approach, regardless of the unknown model characteristics. We argue the outperformance via what we call the asymptotic minimax risk ratio, obtained by minimizing the worst-case asymptotic ratio between the mean square errors of our estimators and the conventional one, where the worst case is over any possible values of the model unknowns. In particular, when the minimax ratio is less than 1, the calibrated estimator is guaranteed to perform better asymptotically. We identify this minimax ratio for general classes of weighted estimators and the regimes where this ratio is less than 1. Moreover, we show that the best weighting scheme is characterized by a sum of two components with distinct decay rates. We explain how this arises from bias-variance balancing that combats the adversarial selection of the model constants, which can be analyzed via a tractable reformulation of a non-convex optimization problem.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss extreme event estimation using a distributionally robust optimization framework. Conventional methods for extreme event estimation rely on well-chosen parametric models asymptotically justified from extreme value theory (EVT). These methods, while powerful and theoretically grounded, could however encounter difficult bias-variance tradeoffs that exacerbates especially when data size is too small, deteriorating the reliability of the tail estimation. The chapters study a framework based on the recently surging literature of distributionally robust optimization. This approach can be viewed as a nonparametric alternative to conventional EVT, by imposing general shape belief on the tail instead of parametric assumption and using worst-case optimization as a resolution to handle the nonparametric uncertainty. We explain how this approach bypasses the bias-variance tradeoff in EVT. On the other hand, we face a conservativeness-variance tradeoff which we describe how to tackle. We also demonstrate computational tools for the involved optimization problems and compare our performance with conventional EVT across a range of numerical examples.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2024-01-12.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Industrial Engineering and Operations Research
Thesis Advisors
Lam, Kwai Hung Henry
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 19, 2022