We investigate the optimal allocation of effort to a collection of n projects. The projects are 'restless' in that the state of a project evolves in time, whether or not it is allocated effort. The evolution of the state of each project follows a Markov rule, but transitions and rewards depend on whether or not the project receives effort. The objective is to maximize the expected time-average reward under a constraint that exactly m of the n projects receive effort at any one time. We show that as m and n tend to infinity with m/n fixed, the per-project reward of the optimal policy is asymptotically the same as that achieved by a policy which operates under the relaxed constraint that an average of m projects be active. The relaxed constraint was considered by Whittle (1988) who described how to use a Lagrangian multiplier approach to assign indices to the projects. he conjectured that the policy of allocating effort to the m projects of greatest index is asymptotically optimal as m and n tend to infinity. We show that this conjecture is true if the differential equation describing the fluid approximation to the index policy has a globally stable equilibrium point. This need not be the case, and we present an example for which the index policy is not asymptotically optimal. However, numerical work suggest that such counterexamples are extremely rare and that the size of the suboptimality which one might expect is minuscule.
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