Abstract
Consider the following variant of the set cover problem. We are given a universe U={1,...,n} and a collection of subsets C = {S_1,...,S_m} where each S_i is a subset of U. For every element u from U we need to find a set phi(u) from collection C such that u belongs to phi(u). Once we construct and fix the mapping phi from U to C a subset X from the universe U is revealed, and we need to cover all elements from X with exactly phi(X), that is {phi(u)}_{all u from X}. The goal is to find a mapping such that the cover phi(X) is as cheap as possible.
This is an example of a universal problem where the solution has to be created before the actual instance to deal with is revealed. Such problems appear naturally in some settings when we need to optimize under uncertainty and it may be actually too expensive to begin finding a good solution once the input starts being revealed. A rich body of work was devoted to investigate such problems under the regime of worst case analysis, i.e., when we measure how good the solution is by looking at the worstcase ratio: universal solution for a given instance vs optimum solution for the same instance.
As the universal solution is significantly more constrained, it is typical that such a worstcase ratio is actually quite big. One way to give a viewpoint on the problem that would be less vulnerable to such extreme worstcases is to assume that the instance, for which we will have to create a solution, will be drawn randomly from some probability distribution. In this case one wants to minimize the expected value of the ratio: universal solution vs optimum solution. Here the bounds obtained are indeed smaller than when we compare to the worstcase ratio.
But even in this case we still compare apples to oranges as no universal solution is able to construct the optimum solution for every possible instance. What if we would compare our approximate universal solution against an optimal universal solution that obeys the same rules as we do? We show that under this viewpoint, but still in the stochastic variant, we can indeed obtain better bounds than in the expected ratio model. For example, for the set cover problem we obtain $H_n$ approximation which matches the approximation ratio from the classic deterministic setup. Moreover, we show this for all possible probability distributions over $U$ that have a polynomially large carrier, while all previous results pertained to a model in which elements were sampled independently. Our result is based on rounding a proper configuration IP that captures the optimal universal solution, and using tools from submodular optimization.
The same basic approach leads to improved approximation algorithms for other related problems, including Vertex Cover, Edge Cover, Directed Steiner Tree, Multicut, and Facility Location.
BibTeX  Entry
@InProceedings{adamczyk_et_al:LIPIcs:2017:7443,
author = {Marek Adamczyk and Fabrizio Grandoni and Stefano Leonardi and Michal Wlodarczyk},
title = {{When the Optimum is also Blind: a New Perspective on Universal Optimization}},
booktitle = {44th International Colloquium on Automata, Languages, and Programming (ICALP 2017)},
pages = {35:135:15},
series = {Leibniz International Proceedings in Informatics (LIPIcs)},
ISBN = {9783959770415},
ISSN = {18688969},
year = {2017},
volume = {80},
editor = {Ioannis Chatzigiannakis and Piotr Indyk and Fabian Kuhn and Anca Muscholl},
publisher = {Schloss DagstuhlLeibnizZentrum fuer Informatik},
address = {Dagstuhl, Germany},
URL = {http://drops.dagstuhl.de/opus/volltexte/2017/7443},
URN = {urn:nbn:de:0030drops74436},
doi = {10.4230/LIPIcs.ICALP.2017.35},
annote = {Keywords: approximation algorithms, stochastic optimization, submodularity}
}
Keywords: 

approximation algorithms, stochastic optimization, submodularity 
Seminar: 

44th International Colloquium on Automata, Languages, and Programming (ICALP 2017) 
Issue Date: 

2017 
Date of publication: 

06.07.2017 