12.4 The Value of Information and Control

Information can be valuable to agents if it helps them make better decisions.

Example 12.24.

In Example 12.22, the action Check_smoke provides information about fire. Checking for smoke costs 20 units and does not provide any direct reward; however, in an optimal policy, it is worthwhile to check for smoke when there is a report because the agent can condition its further actions on the information obtained. Thus, the information about smoke is valuable to the agent, even though smoke only provides imperfect information about whether there is fire.

One of the important lessons from this example is that an information-seeking action, such as Check_smoke, can be treated in the same way as any other action, such as Call. An optimal policy often includes actions whose only purpose is to find information, as long as subsequent actions can condition on some effect of the action. Most actions do not just provide information; they also have a more direct effect on the world.

If X is a random variable and D is a decision variable, the value of information about X for decision D is how much extra utility can be obtained by knowing the value for X when decision D is made. This depends on what is controlled and what else is observed for each decision, which is the information provided in a decision network.

The value of information about X for decision D in a no-forgetting decision network N is

  • the value of decision network N with an arc added from X to D, and with arcs added from X to the decisions after D to ensure that the network remains a no-forgetting decision network

  • minus the value of the decision network N where D does not have information about X, and the no-forgetting arcs are not added.

This is only defined when X is not a successor of D, because that would cause a cycle. (Something more sophisticated must be done when adding the arc from X to D causes a cycle.)

Example 12.25.

In Example 12.14, consider how much it could be worth to get a better forecast. The value of getting perfect information about the weather for the decision about whether to take an umbrella is the difference between the value of the network with an arc from Weather to Umbrella which, as calculated in Example 12.23, is 91 and the original network, which, as computed in Example 12.14, is 77. Thus, the value of information about Weather for the Umbrella decision is 9177=14.

The value of information has some interesting properties:

  • The value of information is never negative. The worst that can happen is that the agent can ignore the information.

  • If an optimal decision is to do the same thing no matter which value of X is observed, the value of information X is zero. If the value of information X is zero, there is an optimal policy that does not depend on the value of X (i.e., the same action can be chosen no matter which value of X is observed).

The value of information is a bound on the amount the agent should be willing to pay (in terms of loss of utility) for information X for decision D. It is an upper bound on the amount that imperfect information about the value of X at decision D would be worth. Imperfect information is the information available from a noisy sensor of X. It is not worth paying more for a sensor of X than the value of information about X for the earliest decision that could use the information of X.

Example 12.26.

In the fire alarm problem of Example 12.22, the agent may be interested in knowing whether it is worthwhile to try to detect tampering. To determine how much a tampering sensor could be worth, consider the value of information about tampering.

The following are the values (the expected utility of the optimal policy, to one decimal point) for some variants of the network. Let N0 be the original network.

  • The network N0 has a value of 22.6.

  • Let N1 be the same as N0 but with an arc added from Tampering to Call. N1 has a value of 21.3.

  • Let N2 be the same as N1 except that it also has an arc from Tampering to Check_smoke. N2 has a value of 20.9.

  • Let N3 be the same as N2 but without the arc from Report to Check_smoke. N3 has the same value as N2.

The difference in the values of the optimal policies for the first two decision networks, namely 1.3, is the value of information about Tampering for the decision Call in network N0. The value of information about Tampering for the decision Check_smoke in network N0 is 1.7. Therefore, installing a tampering sensor could at most give an increase of 1.7 in expected utility.

In the context N3, the value of information about Tampering for Check_smoke is 0. In the optimal policy for the network with both arcs, the information about Alarm is ignored in the optimal decision function for Check_smoke; the agent never checks for smoke when deciding whether to call in the optimal policy when Alarm is a parent of Call.

The value of control specifies how much it is worth to control a variable. In its simplest form, it is the change in value of a decision network where a random variable is replaced by a decision variable, and arcs are added to make it a no-forgetting network. If this is done, the change in utility is non-negative; the resulting network always has an equal or higher expected utility than the original network.

Example 12.27.

In the fire alarm decision network of Figure 12.11, you may be interested in the value of controlling Tampering. This could, for example, be used to estimate how much it is worth to add security guards to prevent tampering. To compute this, compare the value of the decision network of Figure 12.11 to the decision network where Tampering is a decision node and a parent of the other two decision nodes.

To determine the value of control, turn the Tampering node into a decision node and make it a parent of the other two decisions. The value of the resulting network is 20.7. This can be compared to the value of N3 in Example 12.26 (which has the same arcs, and differs in whether Tampering is a decision or random node), which was 20.9. Notice that control is more valuable than information.

The previous description assumed the parents of the random variable that is being controlled become parents of the decision variable. In this case, the value of control is never negative. However, if the parents of the decision node do not include all of the parents of the random variable, it is possible that control is less valuable than information. In general, one must be explicit about what information will be available when controlling a variable.

Example 12.28.

Consider controlling the variable Smoke in the network of Figure 12.11. If Fire is a parent of the decision variable Smoke, it has to be a parent of Call to make it a no-forgetting network. The expected utility of the resulting network with Smoke coming before Check_smoke is 2.0. The value of controlling Smoke in this situation is due to observing Fire. The resulting optimal decision is to call if there is a fire and not call otherwise.

Suppose the agent were to control Smoke without observing Fire. That is, the agent can decide to make smoke or prevent smoke, and Fire is not a parent of any decision. This situation can be modeled by making Smoke a decision variable with no parents. In this case, the expected utility is 23.20, which is worse than the initial decision network, because blindly controlling Smoke loses its ability to act as a sensor for Fire.