Some reinforcement learning (RL) algorithms can stitch pieces of experience to solve a task never seen before during training. This oft-sought property is one of the few ways in which RL methods based on dynamic-programming differ from RL methods based on supervised-learning (SL). Yet, certain RL methods based on off-the-shelf SL algorithms achieve excellent results without an explicit mechanism for stitching; it remains unclear whether those methods forgo this important stitching property. This paper studies this question for the problems of achieving a target goal state and achieving a target return value. Our main result is to show that the stitching property corresponds to a form of combinatorial generalization: after training on a distribution of (state, goal) pairs, one would like to evaluate on (state, goal) pairs not seen together in the training data. Our analysis shows that this sort of generalization is different from i.i.d. generalization. This connection between stitching and generalisation reveals why we should not expect SL-based RL methods to perform stitching, even in the limit of large datasets and models. Based on this analysis, we construct new datasets to explicitly test for this property, revealing that SL-based methods lack this stitching property and hence fail to perform combinatorial generalization. Nonetheless, the connection between stitching and combinatorial generalisation also suggests a simple remedy for improving generalisation in SL: data augmentation. We propose a temporal data augmentation and demonstrate that adding it to SL-based methods enables them to successfully complete tasks not seen together during training. On a high level, this connection illustrates the importance of combinatorial generalization for data efficiency in time-series data beyond tasks beyond RL, like audio, video, or text.
Representations are at the core of all deep reinforcement learning (RL) methods for both Markov decision processes (MDPs) and partially observable Markov decision processes (POMDPs). Many representation learning methods and theoretical frameworks have been developed to understand what constitutes an effective representation. However, the relationships between these methods and the shared properties among them remain unclear. In this paper, we show that many of these seemingly distinct methods and frameworks for state and history abstractions are, in fact, based on a common idea of self-predictive abstraction. Furthermore, we provide theoretical insights into the widely adopted objectives and optimization, such as the stop-gradient technique, in learning self-predictive representations. These findings together yield a minimalist algorithm to learn self-predictive representations for states and histories. We validate our theories by applying our algorithm to standard MDPs, MDPs with distractors, and POMDPs with sparse rewards. These findings culminate in a set of practical guidelines for RL practitioners.
Predicting and reasoning about the future lie at the heart of many time-series questions. For example, goal-conditioned reinforcement learning can be viewed as learning representations to predict which states are likely to be visited in the future. While prior methods have used contrastive predictive coding to model time series data, learning representations that encode long-term dependencies usually requires large amounts of data. In this paper, we introduce a temporal difference version of contrastive predictive coding that stitches together pieces of different time series data to decrease the amount of data required to learn predictions of future events. We apply this representation learning method to derive an off-policy algorithm for goal-conditioned RL. Experiments demonstrate that, compared with prior RL methods, ours achieves $2 \times$ median improvement in success rates and can better cope with stochastic environments. In tabular settings, we show that our method is about $20 \times$ more sample efficient than the successor representation and $1500 \times$ more sample efficient than the standard (Monte Carlo) version of contrastive predictive coding.
Reinforcement learning (RL) algorithms face two distinct challenges: learning effective representations of past and present observations, and determining how actions influence future returns. Both challenges involve modeling long-term dependencies. The transformer architecture has been very successful to solve problems that involve long-term dependencies, including in the RL domain. However, the underlying reason for the strong performance of Transformer-based RL methods remains unclear: is it because they learn effective memory, or because they perform effective credit assignment? After introducing formal definitions of memory length and credit assignment length, we design simple configurable tasks to measure these distinct quantities. Our empirical results reveal that Transformers can enhance the memory capacity of RL algorithms, scaling up to tasks that require memorizing observations $1500$ steps ago. However, Transformers do not improve long-term credit assignment. In summary, our results provide an explanation for the success of Transformers in RL, while also highlighting an important area for future research and benchmark design.
While many real-world problems that might benefit from reinforcement learning, these problems rarely fit into the MDP mold: interacting with the environment is often expensive and specifying reward functions is challenging. Motivated by these challenges, prior work has developed data-driven approaches that learn entirely from samples from the transition dynamics and examples of high-return states. These methods typically learn a reward function from high-return states, use that reward function to label the transitions, and then apply an offline RL algorithm to these transitions. While these methods can achieve good results on many tasks, they can be complex, often requiring regularization and temporal difference updates. In this paper, we propose a method for offline, example-based control that learns an implicit model of multi-step transitions, rather than a reward function. We show that this implicit model can represent the Q-values for the example-based control problem. Across a range of state-based and image-based offline control tasks, our method outperforms baselines that use learned reward functions; additional experiments demonstrate improved robustness and scaling with dataset size.
* Proceedings of The 5th Annual Learning for Dynamics and Control
Conference, PMLR 211:155-169, 2023 * This is an updated version of a manuscript that originally appeared
at L4DC 2023. The project website is here
As with any machine learning problem with limited data, effective offline RL algorithms require careful regularization to avoid overfitting. One-step methods perform regularization by doing just a single step of policy improvement, while critic regularization methods do many steps of policy improvement with a regularized objective. These methods appear distinct. One-step methods, such as advantage-weighted regression and conditional behavioral cloning, truncate policy iteration after just one step. This ``early stopping'' makes one-step RL simple and stable, but can limit its asymptotic performance. Critic regularization typically requires more compute but has appealing lower-bound guarantees. In this paper, we draw a close connection between these methods: applying a multi-step critic regularization method with a regularization coefficient of 1 yields the same policy as one-step RL. While practical implementations violate our assumptions and critic regularization is typically applied with smaller regularization coefficients, our experiments nevertheless show that our analysis makes accurate, testable predictions about practical offline RL methods (CQL and one-step RL) with commonly-used hyperparameters. Our results that every problem can be solved with a single step of policy improvement, but rather that one-step RL might be competitive with critic regularization on RL problems that demand strong regularization.
Unsupervised pre-training has recently become the bedrock for computer vision and natural language processing. In reinforcement learning (RL), goal-conditioned RL can potentially provide an analogous self-supervised approach for making use of large quantities of unlabeled (reward-free) data. However, building effective algorithms for goal-conditioned RL that can learn directly from diverse offline data is challenging, because it is hard to accurately estimate the exact value function for faraway goals. Nonetheless, goal-reaching problems exhibit structure, such that reaching distant goals entails first passing through closer subgoals. This structure can be very useful, as assessing the quality of actions for nearby goals is typically easier than for more distant goals. Based on this idea, we propose a hierarchical algorithm for goal-conditioned RL from offline data. Using one action-free value function, we learn two policies that allow us to exploit this structure: a high-level policy that treats states as actions and predicts (a latent representation of) a subgoal and a low-level policy that predicts the action for reaching this subgoal. Through analysis and didactic examples, we show how this hierarchical decomposition makes our method robust to noise in the estimated value function. We then apply our method to offline goal-reaching benchmarks, showing that our method can solve long-horizon tasks that stymie prior methods, can scale to high-dimensional image observations, and can readily make use of action-free data. Our code is available at https://seohong.me/projects/hiql/
In the same way that the computer vision (CV) and natural language processing (NLP) communities have developed self-supervised methods, reinforcement learning (RL) can be cast as a self-supervised problem: learning to reach any goal, without requiring human-specified rewards or labels. However, actually building a self-supervised foundation for RL faces some important challenges. Building on prior contrastive approaches to this RL problem, we conduct careful ablation experiments and discover that a shallow and wide architecture, combined with careful weight initialization and data augmentation, can significantly boost the performance of these contrastive RL approaches on challenging simulated benchmarks. Additionally, we demonstrate that, with these design decisions, contrastive approaches can solve real-world robotic manipulation tasks, with tasks being specified by a single goal image provided after training.
Training machine learning models robust to distribution shifts is critical for real-world applications. Some robust training algorithms (e.g., Group DRO) specialize to group shifts and require group information on all training points. Other methods (e.g., CVaR DRO) that do not need group annotations can be overly conservative, since they naively upweight high loss points which may form a contrived set that does not correspond to any meaningful group in the real world (e.g., when the high loss points are randomly mislabeled training points). In this work, we address limitations in prior approaches by assuming a more nuanced form of group shift: conditioned on the label, we assume that the true group function (indicator over group) is simple. For example, we may expect that group shifts occur along low bitrate features (e.g., image background, lighting). Thus, we aim to learn a model that maintains high accuracy on simple group functions realized by these low bitrate features, that need not spend valuable model capacity achieving high accuracy on contrived groups of examples. Based on this, we consider the two-player game formulation of DRO where the adversary's capacity is bitrate-constrained. Our resulting practical algorithm, Bitrate-Constrained DRO (BR-DRO), does not require group information on training samples yet matches the performance of Group DRO on datasets that have training group annotations and that of CVaR DRO on long-tailed distributions. Our theoretical analysis reveals that in some settings BR-DRO objective can provably yield statistically efficient and less conservative solutions than unconstrained CVaR DRO.