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Abstract:The study of population dynamics originated with early sociological works (Malthus, 1872) but has since extended into many fields, including biology, epidemiology, evolutionary game theory, and economics. Most studies on population dynamics focus on the problem of prediction rather than control. Existing mathematical models for population control are often restricted to specific, noise-free dynamics, while real-world population changes can be complex and adversarial. To address this gap, we propose a new framework based on the paradigm of online control. We first characterize a set of linear dynamical systems that can naturally model evolving populations. We then give an efficient gradient-based controller for these systems, with near-optimal regret bounds with respect to a broad class of linear policies. Our empirical evaluations demonstrate the effectiveness of the proposed algorithm for population control even in non-linear models such as SIR and replicator dynamics.

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Abstract:Supervised learning is often computationally easy in practice. But to what extent does this mean that other modes of learning, such as reinforcement learning (RL), ought to be computationally easy by extension? In this work we show the first cryptographic separation between RL and supervised learning, by exhibiting a class of block MDPs and associated decoding functions where reward-free exploration is provably computationally harder than the associated regression problem. We also show that there is no computationally efficient algorithm for reward-directed RL in block MDPs, even when given access to an oracle for this regression problem. It is known that being able to perform regression in block MDPs is necessary for finding a good policy; our results suggest that it is not sufficient. Our separation lower bound uses a new robustness property of the Learning Parities with Noise (LPN) hardness assumption, which is crucial in handling the dependent nature of RL data. We argue that separations and oracle lower bounds, such as ours, are a more meaningful way to prove hardness of learning because the constructions better reflect the practical reality that supervised learning by itself is often not the computational bottleneck.

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Abstract:It is well-known that the statistical performance of Lasso can suffer significantly when the covariates of interest have strong correlations. In particular, the prediction error of Lasso becomes much worse than computationally inefficient alternatives like Best Subset Selection. Due to a large conjectured computational-statistical tradeoff in the problem of sparse linear regression, it may be impossible to close this gap in general. In this work, we propose a natural sparse linear regression setting where strong correlations between covariates arise from unobserved latent variables. In this setting, we analyze the problem caused by strong correlations and design a surprisingly simple fix. While Lasso with standard normalization of covariates fails, there exists a heterogeneous scaling of the covariates with which Lasso will suddenly obtain strong provable guarantees for estimation. Moreover, we design a simple, efficient procedure for computing such a "smart scaling." The sample complexity of the resulting "rescaled Lasso" algorithm incurs (in the worst case) quadratic dependence on the sparsity of the underlying signal. While this dependence is not information-theoretically necessary, we give evidence that it is optimal among the class of polynomial-time algorithms, via the method of low-degree polynomials. This argument reveals a new connection between sparse linear regression and a special version of sparse PCA with a near-critical negative spike. The latter problem can be thought of as a real-valued analogue of learning a sparse parity. Using it, we also establish the first computational-statistical gap for the closely related problem of learning a Gaussian Graphical Model.

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Abstract:The key assumption underlying linear Markov Decision Processes (MDPs) is that the learner has access to a known feature map $\phi(x, a)$ that maps state-action pairs to $d$-dimensional vectors, and that the rewards and transitions are linear functions in this representation. But where do these features come from? In the absence of expert domain knowledge, a tempting strategy is to use the ``kitchen sink" approach and hope that the true features are included in a much larger set of potential features. In this paper we revisit linear MDPs from the perspective of feature selection. In a $k$-sparse linear MDP, there is an unknown subset $S \subset [d]$ of size $k$ containing all the relevant features, and the goal is to learn a near-optimal policy in only poly$(k,\log d)$ interactions with the environment. Our main result is the first polynomial-time algorithm for this problem. In contrast, earlier works either made prohibitively strong assumptions that obviated the need for exploration, or required solving computationally intractable optimization problems. Along the way we introduce the notion of an emulator: a succinct approximate representation of the transitions that suffices for computing certain Bellman backups. Since linear MDPs are a non-parametric model, it is not even obvious whether polynomial-sized emulators exist. We show that they do exist and can be computed efficiently via convex programming. As a corollary of our main result, we give an algorithm for learning a near-optimal policy in block MDPs whose decoding function is a low-depth decision tree; the algorithm runs in quasi-polynomial time and takes a polynomial number of samples. This can be seen as a reinforcement learning analogue of classic results in computational learning theory. Furthermore, it gives a natural model where improving the sample complexity via representation learning is computationally feasible.

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Abstract:Score matching is an alternative to maximum likelihood (ML) for estimating a probability distribution parametrized up to a constant of proportionality. By fitting the ''score'' of the distribution, it sidesteps the need to compute this constant of proportionality (which is often intractable). While score matching and variants thereof are popular in practice, precise theoretical understanding of the benefits and tradeoffs with maximum likelihood -- both computational and statistical -- are not well understood. In this work, we give the first example of a natural exponential family of distributions such that the score matching loss is computationally efficient to optimize, and has a comparable statistical efficiency to ML, while the ML loss is intractable to optimize using a gradient-based method. The family consists of exponentials of polynomials of fixed degree, and our result can be viewed as a continuous analogue of recent developments in the discrete setting. Precisely, we show: (1) Designing a zeroth-order or first-order oracle for optimizing the maximum likelihood loss is NP-hard. (2) Maximum likelihood has a statistical efficiency polynomial in the ambient dimension and the radius of the parameters of the family. (3) Minimizing the score matching loss is both computationally and statistically efficient, with complexity polynomial in the ambient dimension.

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Abstract:Sparse linear regression is a central problem in high-dimensional statistics. We study the correlated random design setting, where the covariates are drawn from a multivariate Gaussian $N(0,\Sigma)$, and we seek an estimator with small excess risk. If the true signal is $t$-sparse, information-theoretically, it is possible to achieve strong recovery guarantees with only $O(t\log n)$ samples. However, computationally efficient algorithms have sample complexity linear in (some variant of) the condition number of $\Sigma$. Classical algorithms such as the Lasso can require significantly more samples than necessary even if there is only a single sparse approximate dependency among the covariates. We provide a polynomial-time algorithm that, given $\Sigma$, automatically adapts the Lasso to tolerate a small number of approximate dependencies. In particular, we achieve near-optimal sample complexity for constant sparsity and if $\Sigma$ has few ``outlier'' eigenvalues. Our algorithm fits into a broader framework of feature adaptation for sparse linear regression with ill-conditioned covariates. With this framework, we additionally provide the first polynomial-factor improvement over brute-force search for constant sparsity $t$ and arbitrary covariance $\Sigma$.

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Abstract:Much of reinforcement learning theory is built on top of oracles that are computationally hard to implement. Specifically for learning near-optimal policies in Partially Observable Markov Decision Processes (POMDPs), existing algorithms either need to make strong assumptions about the model dynamics (e.g. deterministic transitions) or assume access to an oracle for solving a hard optimistic planning or estimation problem as a subroutine. In this work we develop the first oracle-free learning algorithm for POMDPs under reasonable assumptions. Specifically, we give a quasipolynomial-time end-to-end algorithm for learning in "observable" POMDPs, where observability is the assumption that well-separated distributions over states induce well-separated distributions over observations. Our techniques circumvent the more traditional approach of using the principle of optimism under uncertainty to promote exploration, and instead give a novel application of barycentric spanners to constructing policy covers.

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Abstract:Measuring the stability of conclusions derived from Ordinary Least Squares linear regression is critically important, but most metrics either only measure local stability (i.e. against infinitesimal changes in the data), or are only interpretable under statistical assumptions. Recent work proposes a simple, global, finite-sample stability metric: the minimum number of samples that need to be removed so that rerunning the analysis overturns the conclusion, specifically meaning that the sign of a particular coefficient of the estimated regressor changes. However, besides the trivial exponential-time algorithm, the only approach for computing this metric is a greedy heuristic that lacks provable guarantees under reasonable, verifiable assumptions; the heuristic provides a loose upper bound on the stability and also cannot certify lower bounds on it. We show that in the low-dimensional regime where the number of covariates is a constant but the number of samples is large, there are efficient algorithms for provably estimating (a fractional version of) this metric. Applying our algorithms to the Boston Housing dataset, we exhibit regression analyses where we can estimate the stability up to a factor of $3$ better than the greedy heuristic, and analyses where we can certify stability to dropping even a majority of the samples.

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Abstract:Sparse linear regression with ill-conditioned Gaussian random designs is widely believed to exhibit a statistical/computational gap, but there is surprisingly little formal evidence for this belief, even in the form of examples that are hard for restricted classes of algorithms. Recent work has shown that, for certain covariance matrices, the broad class of Preconditioned Lasso programs provably cannot succeed on polylogarithmically sparse signals with a sublinear number of samples. However, this lower bound only shows that for every preconditioner, there exists at least one signal that it fails to recover successfully. This leaves open the possibility that, for example, trying multiple different preconditioners solves every sparse linear regression problem. In this work, we prove a stronger lower bound that overcomes this issue. For an appropriate covariance matrix, we construct a single signal distribution on which any invertibly-preconditioned Lasso program fails with high probability, unless it receives a linear number of samples. Surprisingly, at the heart of our lower bound is a new positive result in compressed sensing. We show that standard sparse random designs are with high probability robust to adversarial measurement erasures, in the sense that if $b$ measurements are erased, then all but $O(b)$ of the coordinates of the signal are still information-theoretically identifiable. To our knowledge, this is the first time that partial recoverability of arbitrary sparse signals under erasures has been studied in compressed sensing.

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Abstract:Partially Observable Markov Decision Processes (POMDPs) are a natural and general model in reinforcement learning that take into account the agent's uncertainty about its current state. In the literature on POMDPs, it is customary to assume access to a planning oracle that computes an optimal policy when the parameters are known, even though the problem is known to be computationally hard. Almost all existing planning algorithms either run in exponential time, lack provable performance guarantees, or require placing strong assumptions on the transition dynamics under every possible policy. In this work, we revisit the planning problem and ask: are there natural and well-motivated assumptions that make planning easy? Our main result is a quasipolynomial-time algorithm for planning in (one-step) observable POMDPs. Specifically, we assume that well-separated distributions on states lead to well-separated distributions on observations, and thus the observations are at least somewhat informative in each step. Crucially, this assumption places no restrictions on the transition dynamics of the POMDP; nevertheless, it implies that near-optimal policies admit quasi-succinct descriptions, which is not true in general (under standard hardness assumptions). Our analysis is based on new quantitative bounds for filter stability -- i.e. the rate at which an optimal filter for the latent state forgets its initialization. Furthermore, we prove matching hardness for planning in observable POMDPs under the Exponential Time Hypothesis.

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