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We investigate the extent to which contemporary Large Language Models (LLMs) can engage in exploration, a core capability in reinforcement learning and decision making. We focus on native performance of existing LLMs, without training interventions. We deploy LLMs as agents in simple multi-armed bandit environments, specifying the environment description and interaction history entirely in-context, i.e., within the LLM prompt. We experiment with GPT-3.5, GPT-4, and Llama2, using a variety of prompt designs, and find that the models do not robustly engage in exploration without substantial interventions: i) Across all of our experiments, only one configuration resulted in satisfactory exploratory behavior: GPT-4 with chain-of-thought reasoning and an externally summarized interaction history, presented as sufficient statistics; ii) All other configurations did not result in robust exploratory behavior, including those with chain-of-thought reasoning but unsummarized history. Although these findings can be interpreted positively, they suggest that external summarization -- which may not be possible in more complex settings -- is important for obtaining desirable behavior from LLM agents. We conclude that non-trivial algorithmic interventions, such as fine-tuning or dataset curation, may be required to empower LLM-based decision making agents in complex settings.

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Exploration is a major challenge in reinforcement learning, especially for high-dimensional domains that require function approximation. We propose exploration objectives -- policy optimization objectives that enable downstream maximization of any reward function -- as a conceptual framework to systematize the study of exploration. Within this framework, we introduce a new objective, $L_1$-Coverage, which generalizes previous exploration schemes and supports three fundamental desiderata: 1. Intrinsic complexity control. $L_1$-Coverage is associated with a structural parameter, $L_1$-Coverability, which reflects the intrinsic statistical difficulty of the underlying MDP, subsuming Block and Low-Rank MDPs. 2. Efficient planning. For a known MDP, optimizing $L_1$-Coverage efficiently reduces to standard policy optimization, allowing flexible integration with off-the-shelf methods such as policy gradient and Q-learning approaches. 3. Efficient exploration. $L_1$-Coverage enables the first computationally efficient model-based and model-free algorithms for online (reward-free or reward-driven) reinforcement learning in MDPs with low coverability. Empirically, we find that $L_1$-Coverage effectively drives off-the-shelf policy optimization algorithms to explore the state space.

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A pervasive phenomenon in machine learning applications is distribution shift, where training and deployment conditions for a machine learning model differ. As distribution shift typically results in a degradation in performance, much attention has been devoted to algorithmic interventions that mitigate these detrimental effects. In this paper, we study the effect of distribution shift in the presence of model misspecification, specifically focusing on $L_{\infty}$-misspecified regression and adversarial covariate shift, where the regression target remains fixed while the covariate distribution changes arbitrarily. We show that empirical risk minimization, or standard least squares regression, can result in undesirable misspecification amplification where the error due to misspecification is amplified by the density ratio between the training and testing distributions. As our main result, we develop a new algorithm -- inspired by robust optimization techniques -- that avoids this undesirable behavior, resulting in no misspecification amplification while still obtaining optimal statistical rates. As applications, we use this regression procedure to obtain new guarantees in offline and online reinforcement learning with misspecification and establish new separations between previously studied structural conditions and notions of coverage.

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This work studies training instabilities of behavior cloning with deep neural networks. We observe that minibatch SGD updates to the policy network during training result in sharp oscillations in long-horizon rewards, despite negligibly affecting the behavior cloning loss. We empirically disentangle the statistical and computational causes of these oscillations, and find them to stem from the chaotic propagation of minibatch SGD noise through unstable closed-loop dynamics. While SGD noise is benign in the single-step action prediction objective, it results in catastrophic error accumulation over long horizons, an effect we term gradient variance amplification (GVA). We show that many standard mitigation techniques do not alleviate GVA, but find an exponential moving average (EMA) of iterates to be surprisingly effective at doing so. We illustrate the generality of this phenomenon by showing the existence of GVA and its amelioration by EMA in both continuous control and autoregressive language generation. Finally, we provide theoretical vignettes that highlight the benefits of EMA in alleviating GVA and shed light on the extent to which classical convex models can help in understanding the benefits of iterate averaging in deep learning.

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We consider policy optimization in contextual bandits, where one is given a fixed dataset of logged interactions. While pessimistic regularizers are typically used to mitigate distribution shift, prior implementations thereof are not computationally efficient. We present the first oracle-efficient algorithm for pessimistic policy optimization: it reduces to supervised learning, leading to broad applicability. We also obtain best-effort statistical guarantees analogous to those for pessimistic approaches in prior work. We instantiate our approach for both discrete and continuous actions. We perform extensive experiments in both settings, showing advantage over unregularized policy optimization across a wide range of configurations.

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Why do large language models sometimes output factual inaccuracies and exhibit erroneous reasoning? The brittleness of these models, particularly when executing long chains of reasoning, currently seems to be an inevitable price to pay for their advanced capabilities of coherently synthesizing knowledge, pragmatics, and abstract thought. Towards making sense of this fundamentally unsolved problem, this work identifies and analyzes the phenomenon of attention glitches, in which the Transformer architecture's inductive biases intermittently fail to capture robust reasoning. To isolate the issue, we introduce flip-flop language modeling (FFLM), a parametric family of synthetic benchmarks designed to probe the extrapolative behavior of neural language models. This simple generative task requires a model to copy binary symbols over long-range dependencies, ignoring the tokens in between. We find that Transformer FFLMs suffer from a long tail of sporadic reasoning errors, some of which we can eliminate using various regularization techniques. Our preliminary mechanistic analyses show why the remaining errors may be very difficult to diagnose and resolve. We hypothesize that attention glitches account for (some of) the closed-domain hallucinations in natural LLMs.

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Active learning is perhaps most naturally posed as an online learning problem. However, prior active learning approaches with deep neural networks assume offline access to the entire dataset ahead of time. This paper proposes VeSSAL, a new algorithm for batch active learning with deep neural networks in streaming settings, which samples groups of points to query for labels at the moment they are encountered. Our approach trades off between uncertainty and diversity of queried samples to match a desired query rate without requiring any hand-tuned hyperparameters. Altogether, we expand the applicability of deep neural networks to realistic active learning scenarios, such as applications relevant to HCI and large, fractured datasets.

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This paper is concerned with the computational complexity of learning the Hidden Markov Model (HMM). Although HMMs are some of the most widely used tools in sequential and time series modeling, they are cryptographically hard to learn in the standard setting where one has access to i.i.d. samples of observation sequences. In this paper, we depart from this setup and consider an interactive access model, in which the algorithm can query for samples from the conditional distributions of the HMMs. We show that interactive access to the HMM enables computationally efficient learning algorithms, thereby bypassing cryptographic hardness. Specifically, we obtain efficient algorithms for learning HMMs in two settings: (a) An easier setting where we have query access to the exact conditional probabilities. Here our algorithm runs in polynomial time and makes polynomially many queries to approximate any HMM in total variation distance. (b) A harder setting where we can only obtain samples from the conditional distributions. Here the performance of the algorithm depends on a new parameter, called the fidelity of the HMM. We show that this captures cryptographically hard instances and previously known positive results. We also show that these results extend to a broader class of distributions with latent low rank structure. Our algorithms can be viewed as generalizations and robustifications of Angluin's $L^*$ algorithm for learning deterministic finite automata from membership queries.

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This paper studies the prediction of a target $\mathbf{z}$ from a pair of random variables $(\mathbf{x},\mathbf{y})$, where the ground-truth predictor is additive $\mathbb{E}[\mathbf{z} \mid \mathbf{x},\mathbf{y}] = f_\star(\mathbf{x}) +g_{\star}(\mathbf{y})$. We study the performance of empirical risk minimization (ERM) over functions $f+g$, $f \in \mathcal{F}$ and $g \in \mathcal{G}$, fit on a given training distribution, but evaluated on a test distribution which exhibits covariate shift. We show that, when the class $\mathcal{F}$ is "simpler" than $\mathcal{G}$ (measured, e.g., in terms of its metric entropy), our predictor is more resilient to \emph{heterogenous covariate shifts} in which the shift in $\mathbf{x}$ is much greater than that in $\mathbf{y}$. These results rely on a novel H\"older style inequality for the Dudley integral which may be of independent interest. Moreover, we corroborate our theoretical findings with experiments demonstrating improved resilience to shifts in "simpler" features across numerous domains.

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Algorithmic reasoning requires capabilities which are most naturally understood through recurrent models of computation, like the Turing machine. However, Transformer models, while lacking recurrence, are able to perform such reasoning using far fewer layers than the number of reasoning steps. This raises the question: what solutions are these shallow and non-recurrent models finding? We investigate this question in the setting of learning automata, discrete dynamical systems naturally suited to recurrent modeling and expressing algorithmic tasks. Our theoretical results completely characterize shortcut solutions, whereby a shallow Transformer with only $o(T)$ layers can exactly replicate the computation of an automaton on an input sequence of length $T$. By representing automata using the algebraic structure of their underlying transformation semigroups, we obtain $O(\log T)$-depth simulators for all automata and $O(1)$-depth simulators for all automata whose associated groups are solvable. Empirically, we perform synthetic experiments by training Transformers to simulate a wide variety of automata, and show that shortcut solutions can be learned via standard training. We further investigate the brittleness of these solutions and propose potential mitigations.

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