Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.


Computer Engineering and Computer Science

Degree Program

Computer Science and Engineering, PhD

Committee Chair

Nasraoui, Olfa

Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)

Frigui, Hichem

Committee Member

Frigui, Hichem

Committee Member

Altiparmak, Nihat

Committee Member

Park, Juw Won

Committee Member

Kolers, Avery

Author's Keywords

recommender systems; machine learning; explainability; exposure bias; bayesian personalized ranking; transformers


Recommender systems have become ubiquitous Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools that play an important role in filtering online information in our daily lives. Whether we are shopping, browsing movies, or listening to music online, AI recommender systems are working behind the scene to provide us with curated and personalized content, that has been predicted to be relevant to our interest. The increasing prevalence of recommender systems has challenged researchers to develop powerful algorithms that can deliver recommendations with increasing accuracy. In addition to the predictive accuracy of recommender systems, recent research has also started paying attention to their fairness, in particular with regard to the bias and transparency of their predictions. This dissertation contributes to advancing the state of the art in fairness in AI by proposing new Machine Learning models and algorithms that aim to improve the user's experience when receiving recommendations, with a focus that is positioned at the nexus of three objectives, namely accuracy, transparency, and unbiasedness of the predictions. In our research, we focus on state-of-the-art Collaborative Filtering (CF) recommendation approaches trained on implicit feedback data. More specifically, we address the limitations of two established deep learning approaches in two distinct recommendation settings, namely recommendation with user profiles and sequential recommendation. First, we focus on a state of the art pairwise ranking model, namely Bayesian Personalized Ranking (BPR), which has been found to outperform pointwise models in predictive accuracy in the recommendation with the user profiles setting. Specifically, we address two limitations of BPR: (1) BPR is a black box model that does not explain its outputs, thus limiting the user's trust in the recommendations, and the analyst's ability to scrutinize a model's outputs; and (2) BPR is vulnerable to exposure bias due to the data being Missing Not At Random (MNAR). This exposure bias usually translates into an unfairness against the least popular items because they risk being under-exposed by the recommender system. We propose a novel explainable loss function and a corresponding model called Explainable Bayesian Personalized Ranking (EBPR) that generates recommendations along with item-based explanations. Then, we theoretically quantify the additional exposure bias resulting from the explainability, and use it as a basis to propose an unbiased estimator for the ideal EBPR loss. This being done, we perform an empirical study on three real-world benchmarking datasets that demonstrate the advantages of our proposed models, compared to existing state of the art techniques. Next, we shift our attention to sequential recommendation systems and focus on modeling and mitigating exposure bias in BERT4Rec, which is a state-of-the-art recommendation approach based on bidirectional transformers. The bi-directional representation capacity in BERT4Rec is based on the Cloze task, a.k.a. Masked Language Model, which consists of predicting randomly masked items within the sequence, assuming that the true interacted item is the most relevant one. This results in an exposure bias, where non-interacted items with low exposure propensities are assumed to be irrelevant. Thus far, the most common approach to mitigating exposure bias in recommendation has been Inverse Propensity Scoring (IPS), which consists of down-weighting the interacted predictions in the loss function in proportion to their propensities of exposure, yielding a theoretically unbiased learning. We first argue and prove that IPS does not extend to sequential recommendation because it fails to account for the sequential nature of the problem. We then propose a novel propensity scoring mechanism, that we name Inverse Temporal Propensity Scoring (ITPS), which is used to theoretically debias the Cloze task in sequential recommendation. We also rely on the ITPS framework to propose a bidirectional transformer-based model called ITPS-BERT4Rec. Finally, we empirically demonstrate the debiasing capabilities of our proposed approach and its robustness to the severity of exposure bias. Our proposed explainable approach in recommendation with user profiles, EBPR, showed an increase in ranking accuracy of about 4% and an increase in explainability of about 7% over the baseline BPR model when performing experiments on real-world recommendation datasets. Moreover, experiments on a real-world unbiased dataset demonstrated the importance of coupling explainability and exposure debiasing in capturing the true preferences of the user with a significant improvement of 1% over the baseline unbiased model UBPR. Furthermore, coupling explainability with exposure debiasing was also empirically proven to mitigate popularity bias with an improvement in popularity debiasing metrics of over 10% on three real-world recommendation tasks over the unbiased UBPR model. These results demonstrate the viability of our proposed approaches in recommendation with user profiles and their capacity to improve the user's experience in recommendation by better capturing and modeling their true preferences, improving the explainability of the recommendations, and presenting them with more diverse recommendations that span a larger portion of the item catalog. On the other hand, our proposed approach in sequential recommendation ITPS-BERT4Rec has demonstrated a significant increase of 1% in terms of modeling the true preferences of the user in a semi-synthetic setting over the state-of-the-art sequential recommendation model BERT4Rec while also being unbiased in terms of exposure. Similarly, ITPS-BERT4Rec showed an average increase of 8.7% over BERT4Rec in three real-world recommendation settings. Moreover, empirical experiments demonstrated the robustness of our proposed ITPS-BERT4Rec model to increasing levels of exposure bias and its stability in terms of variance. Furthermore, experiments on popularity debiasing showed a significant advantage of our proposed ITPS-BERT4Rec model for both the short and long term sequences. Finally, ITPS-BERT4Rec showed respective improvements of around 60%, 470%, and 150% over vanilla BERT4Rec in capturing the temporal dependencies between the items within the sequences of interactions for three different evaluation metrics. These results demonstrate the potential of our proposed unbiased estimator to improve the user experience in the context of sequential recommendation by presenting them with more accurate and diverse recommendations that better match their true preferences and the sequential dependencies between the recommended items.

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