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Jonathan D. Chang, Kiante Brantley, Rajkumar Ramamurthy, Dipendra Misra, Wen Sun

Reinforcement learning (RL) has emerged as a powerful paradigm for fine-tuning Large Language Models (LLMs) for conditional text generation. In particular, recent LLMs such as ChatGPT and GPT-4 can engage in fluent conversations with users by incorporating RL and feedback from humans. Inspired by learning-to-search algorithms and capitalizing on key properties of text generation, we seek to investigate reinforcement learning algorithms beyond general purpose algorithms such as Proximal policy optimization (PPO). In particular, we extend RL algorithms to allow them to interact with a dynamic black-box guide LLM such as GPT-3 and propose RL with guided feedback (RLGF), a suite of RL algorithms for LLM fine-tuning. We experiment on the IMDB positive review and CommonGen text generation task from the GRUE benchmark. We show that our RL algorithms achieve higher performance than supervised learning (SL) and default PPO baselines, demonstrating the benefit of interaction with the guide LLM. On CommonGen, we not only outperform our SL baselines but also improve beyond PPO across a variety of lexical and semantic metrics beyond the one we optimized for. Notably, on the IMDB dataset, we show that our GPT-2 based policy outperforms the zero-shot GPT-3 oracle, indicating that our algorithms can learn from a powerful, black-box GPT-3 oracle with a simpler, cheaper, and publicly available GPT-2 model while gaining performance.

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Anqi Li, Dipendra Misra, Andrey Kolobov, Ching-An Cheng

We present a novel observation about the behavior of offline reinforcement learning (RL) algorithms: on many benchmark datasets, offline RL can produce well-performing and safe policies even when trained with "wrong" reward labels, such as those that are zero everywhere or are negatives of the true rewards. This phenomenon cannot be easily explained by offline RL's return maximization objective. Moreover, it gives offline RL a degree of robustness that is uncharacteristic of its online RL counterparts, which are known to be sensitive to reward design. We demonstrate that this surprising robustness property is attributable to an interplay between the notion of pessimism in offline RL algorithms and a certain bias implicit in common data collection practices. As we prove in this work, pessimism endows the agent with a "survival instinct", i.e., an incentive to stay within the data support in the long term, while the limited and biased data coverage further constrains the set of survival policies. Formally, given a reward class -- which may not even contain the true reward -- we identify conditions on the training data distribution that enable offline RL to learn a near-optimal and safe policy from any reward within the class. We argue that the survival instinct should be taken into account when interpreting results from existing offline RL benchmarks and when creating future ones. Our empirical and theoretical results suggest a new paradigm for RL, whereby an agent is "nudged" to learn a desirable behavior with imperfect reward but purposely biased data coverage.

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Shengpu Tang, Felipe Vieira Frujeri, Dipendra Misra, Alex Lamb, John Langford, Paul Mineiro, Sebastian Kochman

Modern decision-making systems, from robots to web recommendation engines, are expected to adapt: to user preferences, changing circumstances or even new tasks. Yet, it is still uncommon to deploy a dynamically learning agent (rather than a fixed policy) to a production system, as it's perceived as unsafe. Using historical data to reason about learning algorithms, similar to offline policy evaluation (OPE) applied to fixed policies, could help practitioners evaluate and ultimately deploy such adaptive agents to production. In this work, we formalize offline learner simulation (OLS) for reinforcement learning (RL) and propose a novel evaluation protocol that measures both fidelity and efficiency of the simulation. For environments with complex high-dimensional observations, we propose a semi-parametric approach that leverages recent advances in latent state discovery in order to achieve accurate and efficient offline simulations. In preliminary experiments, we show the advantage of our approach compared to fully non-parametric baselines. The code to reproduce these experiments will be made available at https://github.com/microsoft/rl-offline-simulation.

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Riashat Islam, Manan Tomar, Alex Lamb, Yonathan Efroni, Hongyu Zang, Aniket Didolkar, Dipendra Misra, Xin Li, Harm van Seijen, Remi Tachet des Combes, John Langford

Learning to control an agent from data collected offline in a rich pixel-based visual observation space is vital for real-world applications of reinforcement learning (RL). A major challenge in this setting is the presence of input information that is hard to model and irrelevant to controlling the agent. This problem has been approached by the theoretical RL community through the lens of exogenous information, i.e, any control-irrelevant information contained in observations. For example, a robot navigating in busy streets needs to ignore irrelevant information, such as other people walking in the background, textures of objects, or birds in the sky. In this paper, we focus on the setting with visually detailed exogenous information, and introduce new offline RL benchmarks offering the ability to study this problem. We find that contemporary representation learning techniques can fail on datasets where the noise is a complex and time dependent process, which is prevalent in practical applications. To address these, we propose to use multi-step inverse models, which have seen a great deal of interest in the RL theory community, to learn Agent-Controller Representations for Offline-RL (ACRO). Despite being simple and requiring no reward, we show theoretically and empirically that the representation created by this objective greatly outperforms baselines.

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Andrew Bennett, Dipendra Misra, Nathan Kallus

Safety is a crucial necessity in many applications of reinforcement learning (RL), whether robotic, automotive, or medical. Many existing approaches to safe RL rely on receiving numeric safety feedback, but in many cases this feedback can only take binary values; that is, whether an action in a given state is safe or unsafe. This is particularly true when feedback comes from human experts. We therefore consider the problem of provable safe RL when given access to an offline oracle providing binary feedback on the safety of state, action pairs. We provide a novel meta algorithm, SABRE, which can be applied to any MDP setting given access to a blackbox PAC RL algorithm for that setting. SABRE applies concepts from active learning to reinforcement learning to provably control the number of queries to the safety oracle. SABRE works by iteratively exploring the state space to find regions where the agent is currently uncertain about safety. Our main theoretical results shows that, under appropriate technical assumptions, SABRE never takes unsafe actions during training, and is guaranteed to return a near-optimal safe policy with high probability. We provide a discussion of how our meta-algorithm may be applied to various settings studied in both theoretical and empirical frameworks.

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Alex Lamb, Riashat Islam, Yonathan Efroni, Aniket Didolkar, Dipendra Misra, Dylan Foster, Lekan Molu, Rajan Chari, Akshay Krishnamurthy, John Langford

A person walking along a city street who tries to model all aspects of the world would quickly be overwhelmed by a multitude of shops, cars, and people moving in and out of view, following their own complex and inscrutable dynamics. Exploration and navigation in such an environment is an everyday task, requiring no vast exertion of mental resources. Is it possible to turn this fire hose of sensory information into a minimal latent state which is necessary and sufficient for an agent to successfully act in the world? We formulate this question concretely, and propose the Agent-Controllable State Discovery algorithm (AC-State), which has theoretical guarantees and is practically demonstrated to discover the \textit{minimal controllable latent state} which contains all of the information necessary for controlling the agent, while fully discarding all irrelevant information. This algorithm consists of a multi-step inverse model (predicting actions from distant observations) with an information bottleneck. AC-State enables localization, exploration, and navigation without reward or demonstrations. We demonstrate the discovery of controllable latent state in three domains: localizing a robot arm with distractions (e.g., changing lighting conditions and background), exploring in a maze alongside other agents, and navigating in the Matterport house simulator.

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Yonathan Efroni, Dylan J. Foster, Dipendra Misra, Akshay Krishnamurthy, John Langford

In real-world reinforcement learning applications the learner's observation space is ubiquitously high-dimensional with both relevant and irrelevant information about the task at hand. Learning from high-dimensional observations has been the subject of extensive investigation in supervised learning and statistics (e.g., via sparsity), but analogous issues in reinforcement learning are not well understood, even in finite state/action (tabular) domains. We introduce a new problem setting for reinforcement learning, the Exogenous Markov Decision Process (ExoMDP), in which the state space admits an (unknown) factorization into a small controllable (or, endogenous) component and a large irrelevant (or, exogenous) component; the exogenous component is independent of the learner's actions, but evolves in an arbitrary, temporally correlated fashion. We provide a new algorithm, ExoRL, which learns a near-optimal policy with sample complexity polynomial in the size of the endogenous component and nearly independent of the size of the exogenous component, thereby offering a doubly-exponential improvement over off-the-shelf algorithms. Our results highlight for the first time that sample-efficient reinforcement learning is possible in the presence of exogenous information, and provide a simple, user-friendly benchmark for investigation going forward.

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Yao Liu, Dipendra Misra, Miro Dudík, Robert E. Schapire

We study reinforcement learning (RL) in settings where observations are high-dimensional, but where an RL agent has access to abstract knowledge about the structure of the state space, as is the case, for example, when a robot is tasked to go to a specific room in a building using observations from its own camera, while having access to the floor plan. We formalize this setting as transfer reinforcement learning from an abstract simulator, which we assume is deterministic (such as a simple model of moving around the floor plan), but which is only required to capture the target domain's latent-state dynamics approximately up to unknown (bounded) perturbations (to account for environment stochasticity). Crucially, we assume no prior knowledge about the structure of observations in the target domain except that they can be used to identify the latent states (but the decoding map is unknown). Under these assumptions, we present an algorithm, called TASID, that learns a robust policy in the target domain, with sample complexity that is polynomial in the horizon, and independent of the number of states, which is not possible without access to some prior knowledge. In synthetic experiments, we verify various properties of our algorithm and show that it empirically outperforms transfer RL algorithms that require access to "full simulators" (i.e., those that also simulate observations).

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Nikunj Saunshi, Jordan Ash, Surbhi Goel, Dipendra Misra, Cyril Zhang, Sanjeev Arora, Sham Kakade, Akshay Krishnamurthy

Contrastive learning is a popular form of self-supervised learning that encourages augmentations (views) of the same input to have more similar representations compared to augmentations of different inputs. Recent attempts to theoretically explain the success of contrastive learning on downstream classification tasks prove guarantees depending on properties of {\em augmentations} and the value of {\em contrastive loss} of representations. We demonstrate that such analyses, that ignore {\em inductive biases} of the function class and training algorithm, cannot adequately explain the success of contrastive learning, even {\em provably} leading to vacuous guarantees in some settings. Extensive experiments on image and text domains highlight the ubiquity of this problem -- different function classes and algorithms behave very differently on downstream tasks, despite having the same augmentations and contrastive losses. Theoretical analysis is presented for the class of linear representations, where incorporating inductive biases of the function class allows contrastive learning to work with less stringent conditions compared to prior analyses.

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Yonathan Efroni, Dipendra Misra, Akshay Krishnamurthy, Alekh Agarwal, John Langford

Many real-world applications of reinforcement learning (RL) require the agent to deal with high-dimensional observations such as those generated from a megapixel camera. Prior work has addressed such problems with representation learning, through which the agent can provably extract endogenous, latent state information from raw observations and subsequently plan efficiently. However, such approaches can fail in the presence of temporally correlated noise in the observations, a phenomenon that is common in practice. We initiate the formal study of latent state discovery in the presence of such exogenous noise sources by proposing a new model, the Exogenous Block MDP (EX-BMDP), for rich observation RL. We start by establishing several negative results, by highlighting failure cases of prior representation learning based approaches. Then, we introduce the Predictive Path Elimination (PPE) algorithm, that learns a generalization of inverse dynamics and is provably sample and computationally efficient in EX-BMDPs when the endogenous state dynamics are near deterministic. The sample complexity of PPE depends polynomially on the size of the latent endogenous state space while not directly depending on the size of the observation space, nor the exogenous state space. We provide experiments on challenging exploration problems which show that our approach works empirically.

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