In reinforcement learning (RL), state representations are key to dealing with large or continuous state spaces. While one of the promises of deep learning algorithms is to automatically construct features well-tuned for the task they try to solve, such a representation might not emerge from end-to-end training of deep RL agents. To mitigate this issue, auxiliary objectives are often incorporated into the learning process and help shape the learnt state representation. Bootstrapping methods are today's method of choice to make these additional predictions. Yet, it is unclear which features these algorithms capture and how they relate to those from other auxiliary-task-based approaches. In this paper, we address this gap and provide a theoretical characterization of the state representation learnt by temporal difference learning (Sutton, 1988). Surprisingly, we find that this representation differs from the features learned by Monte Carlo and residual gradient algorithms for most transition structures of the environment in the policy evaluation setting. We describe the efficacy of these representations for policy evaluation, and use our theoretical analysis to design new auxiliary learning rules. We complement our theoretical results with an empirical comparison of these learning rules for different cumulant functions on classic domains such as the four-room domain (Sutton et al, 1999) and Mountain Car (Moore, 1990).
Multi-step learning applies lookahead over multiple time steps and has proved valuable in policy evaluation settings. However, in the optimal control case, the impact of multi-step learning has been relatively limited despite a number of prior efforts. Fundamentally, this might be because multi-step policy improvements require operations that cannot be approximated by stochastic samples, hence hindering the widespread adoption of such methods in practice. To address such limitations, we introduce doubly multi-step off-policy VI (DoMo-VI), a novel oracle algorithm that combines multi-step policy improvements and policy evaluations. DoMo-VI enjoys guaranteed convergence speed-up to the optimal policy and is applicable in general off-policy learning settings. We then propose doubly multi-step off-policy actor-critic (DoMo-AC), a practical instantiation of the DoMo-VI algorithm. DoMo-AC introduces a bias-variance trade-off that ensures improved policy gradient estimates. When combined with the IMPALA architecture, DoMo-AC has showed improvements over the baseline algorithm on Atari-57 game benchmarks.
We analyse quantile temporal-difference learning (QTD), a distributional reinforcement learning algorithm that has proven to be a key component in several successful large-scale applications of reinforcement learning. Despite these empirical successes, a theoretical understanding of QTD has proven elusive until now. Unlike classical TD learning, which can be analysed with standard stochastic approximation tools, QTD updates do not approximate contraction mappings, are highly non-linear, and may have multiple fixed points. The core result of this paper is a proof of convergence to the fixed points of a related family of dynamic programming procedures with probability 1, putting QTD on firm theoretical footing. The proof establishes connections between QTD and non-linear differential inclusions through stochastic approximation theory and non-smooth analysis.
Reward is the driving force for reinforcement-learning agents. This paper is dedicated to understanding the expressivity of reward as a way to capture tasks that we would want an agent to perform. We frame this study around three new abstract notions of "task" that might be desirable: (1) a set of acceptable behaviors, (2) a partial ordering over behaviors, or (3) a partial ordering over trajectories. Our main results prove that while reward can express many of these tasks, there exist instances of each task type that no Markov reward function can capture. We then provide a set of polynomial-time algorithms that construct a Markov reward function that allows an agent to optimize tasks of each of these three types, and correctly determine when no such reward function exists. We conclude with an empirical study that corroborates and illustrates our theoretical findings.
Credit assignment in reinforcement learning is the problem of measuring an action influence on future rewards. In particular, this requires separating skill from luck, ie. disentangling the effect of an action on rewards from that of external factors and subsequent actions. To achieve this, we adapt the notion of counterfactuals from causality theory to a model-free RL setup. The key idea is to condition value functions on future events, by learning to extract relevant information from a trajectory. We then propose to use these as future-conditional baselines and critics in policy gradient algorithms and we develop a valid, practical variant with provably lower variance, while achieving unbiasedness by constraining the hindsight information not to contain information about the agent actions. We demonstrate the efficacy and validity of our algorithm on a number of illustrative problems.
Reinforcement learning is a powerful learning paradigm in which agents can learn to maximize sparse and delayed reward signals. Although RL has had many impressive successes in complex domains, learning can take hours, days, or even years of training data. A major challenge of contemporary RL research is to discover how to learn with less data. Previous work has shown that domain information can be successfully used to shape the reward; by adding additional reward information, the agent can learn with much less data. Furthermore, if the reward is constructed from a potential function, the optimal policy is guaranteed to be unaltered. While such potential-based reward shaping (PBRS) holds promise, it is limited by the need for a well-defined potential function. Ideally, we would like to be able to take arbitrary advice from a human or other agent and improve performance without affecting the optimal policy. The recently introduced dynamic potential based advice (DPBA) method tackles this challenge by admitting arbitrary advice from a human or other agent and improves performance without affecting the optimal policy. The main contribution of this paper is to expose, theoretically and empirically, a flaw in DPBA. Alternatively, to achieve the ideal goals, we present a simple method called policy invariant explicit shaping (PIES) and show theoretically and empirically that PIES succeeds where DPBA fails.
We consider the problem of efficient credit assignment in reinforcement learning. In order to efficiently and meaningfully utilize new data, we propose to explicitly assign credit to past decisions based on the likelihood of them having led to the observed outcome. This approach uses new information in hindsight, rather than employing foresight. Somewhat surprisingly, we show that value functions can be rewritten through this lens, yielding a new family of algorithms. We study the properties of these algorithms, and empirically show that they successfully address important credit assignment challenges, through a set of illustrative tasks.
The principal contribution of this paper is a conceptual framework for off-policy reinforcement learning, based on conditional expectations of importance sampling ratios. This framework yields new perspectives and understanding of existing off-policy algorithms, and reveals a broad space of unexplored algorithms. We theoretically analyse this space, and concretely investigate several algorithms that arise from this framework.
In this work, we consider the problem of autonomously discovering behavioral abstractions, or options, for reinforcement learning agents. We propose an algorithm that focuses on the termination condition, as opposed to -- as is common -- the policy. The termination condition is usually trained to optimize a control objective: an option ought to terminate if another has better value. We offer a different, information-theoretic perspective, and propose that terminations should focus instead on the compressibility of the option's encoding -- arguably a key reason for using abstractions. To achieve this algorithmically, we leverage the classical options framework, and learn the option transition model as a "critic" for the termination condition. Using this model, we derive gradients that optimize the desired criteria. We show that the resulting options are non-trivial, intuitively meaningful, and useful for learning and planning.
A temporally abstract action, or an option, is specified by a policy and a termination condition: the policy guides option behavior, and the termination condition roughly determines its length. Generally, learning with longer options (like learning with multi-step returns) is known to be more efficient. However, if the option set for the task is not ideal, and cannot express the primitive optimal policy exactly, shorter options offer more flexibility and can yield a better solution. Thus, the termination condition puts learning efficiency at odds with solution quality. We propose to resolve this dilemma by decoupling the behavior and target terminations, just like it is done with policies in off-policy learning. To this end, we give a new algorithm, Q(\beta), that learns the solution with respect to any termination condition, regardless of how the options actually terminate. We derive Q(\beta) by casting learning with options into a common framework with well-studied multi-step off-policy learning. We validate our algorithm empirically, and show that it holds up to its motivating claims.