Learning to Embed Categorical Features without Embedding Tables for Recommendation

Embedding learning of categorical features (e.g. user/item IDs) is at the core of various recommendation models including matrix factorization and neural collaborative filtering. The standard approach creates an embedding table where each row represents a dedicated embedding vector for every unique feature value. However, this method fails to efficiently handle high-cardinality features and unseen feature values (e.g. new video ID) that are prevalent in real-world recommendation systems. In this paper, we propose an alternative embedding framework Deep Hash Embedding (DHE), replacing embedding tables by a deep embedding network to compute embeddings on the fly. DHE first encodes the feature value to a unique identifier vector with multiple hashing functions and transformations, and then applies a DNN to convert the identifier vector to an embedding. The encoding module is deterministic, non-learnable, and free of storage, while the embedding network is updated during the training time to learn embedding generation. Empirical results show that DHE achieves comparable AUC against the standard one-hot full embedding, with smaller model sizes. Our work sheds light on the design of DNN-based alternative embedding schemes for categorical features without using embedding table lookup.

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