In many applications, it is desirable to extract only the relevant information from complex input data, which involves making a decision about which input features are relevant.
The information bottleneck method formalizes this as an information-theoretic optimization problem by maintaining an optimal tradeoff between compression (throwing away irrelevant input information), and predicting the target. In many problem settings, including the reinforcement learning problems we consider in this work, we might prefer to compress only part of the input. This is typically the case when we have a standard conditioning input, such as a state observation, and a ``privileged'' input, which might correspond to the goal of a task, the output of a costly planning algorithm, or communication with another agent. In such cases, we might prefer to compress the privileged input, either to achieve better generalization (e.g., with respect to goals) or to minimize access to costly information (e.g., in the case of communication). Practical implementations of the information bottleneck based on variational inference require access to the privileged input in order to compute the bottleneck variable, so although they perform compression, this compression operation itself needs unrestricted, lossless access. In this work, we propose the variational bandwidth bottleneck, which decides for each example on the estimated value of the privileged information before seeing it, i.e., only based on the standard input, and then accordingly chooses stochastically, whether to access the privileged input or not. We formulate a tractable approximation to this framework and demonstrate in a series of reinforcement learning experiments that it can improve generalization and reduce access to computationally costly information.