A Survey of Controllable Learning: Methods, Applications, and Challenges in Information Retrieval

Controllable Learning (CL) is emerging as a crucial component of trustworthy machine learning. It emphasizes ensuring that learning models meet predefined targets and adapt to changing requirements without retraining. Let’s delve into the methods and applications of CL, particularly focusing on its implementation within Information Retrieval (IR) systems presented by researchers from Renmin University of China.

Definition and Importance of Controllable Learning

Controllable Learning is formally defined as the ability of a learning system to adapt to various task requirements without requiring retraining. This adaptability ensures that the learning model meets the specific needs and targets of the user, thus enhancing the reliability and effectiveness of the system. The significance of CL is rooted in its ability to address the dynamic and complex nature of information needs in IR applications, where the context and requirements can frequently change.

Taxonomy of Controllable Learning

The CL taxonomy is categorized based on who controls the learning process (users or platforms), what aspects are controllable (e.g., retrieval objectives, user behaviors, environmental adaptation), how control is implemented (e.g., rule-based methods, Pareto optimization, Hypernetwork), and where power is applied (pre-processing, in-processing, post-processing).

User-Centric Control

User-centric control empowers users to shape their recommendation experience actively. This involves modifying user profiles, interactions, and preferences to influence recommendation systems’ output directly. Techniques such as UCRS and LACE enable users to manage their profiles and interactions, ensuring that the recommendations align with their evolving preferences.

Platform-Mediated Control

Platform-mediated control involves algorithmic adjustments and policy-based constraints imposed by the platform. This approach aims to enhance the recommendation process by balancing multiple objectives, such as accuracy, diversity, and user satisfaction. Techniques like ComiRec and CMR utilize hypernetworks to dynamically generate parameters that adapt to varying user preferences and environmental changes, ensuring a tailored recommendation experience.

Implementation Techniques in Controllable Learning

Various techniques are employed to implement control in learning systems. These include:

  1. Rule-Based Techniques: These methods involve applying predefined rules to refine & enhance the output of AI models, ensuring aspects like security, fairness, and interpretability. This technique effectively ensures the system meets specific performance metrics such as diversity and fairness in recommendations.
  2. Pareto Optimization: This approach balances multiple conflicting objectives by finding a set of optimal trade-offs. It allows for real-time adjustments and provides a dynamic system that responds to changing user preferences and task demands.
  3. Hypernetwork: Hypernetworks generate parameters for another network, offering a flexible way to dynamically manage and adapt model parameters. This technique enhances the model’s adaptability and performance across various tasks and domains.

Applications in Information Retrieval

Controllable learning in IR is particularly valuable due to user information needs’ complex and evolving nature. The adaptability of CL techniques ensures that the learning models can dynamically adjust to different task descriptions, providing personalized and relevant search results without extensive retraining. This adaptability enhances user satisfaction and system performance in IR applications.


The survey of controllable learning highlights its critical role in ensuring trustworthy and adaptable machine learning systems. Providing a comprehensive overview of CL’s methods, applications, and challenges, it is a good resource for researchers, practitioners, & policymakers interested in the future of trustworthy machine learning and information retrieval.

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Aswin AK is a consulting intern at MarkTechPost. He is pursuing his Dual Degree at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. He is passionate about data science and machine learning, bringing a strong academic background and hands-on experience in solving real-life cross-domain challenges.

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