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Akshay Krishnamurthy, Keegan Harris, Dylan J. Foster, Cyril Zhang, Aleksandrs Slivkins

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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Philip Amortila, Dylan J. Foster, Akshay Krishnamurthy

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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Philip Amortila, Dylan J. Foster, Nan Jiang, Ayush Sekhari, Tengyang Xie

The theories of offline and online reinforcement learning, despite having evolved in parallel, have begun to show signs of the possibility for a unification, with algorithms and analysis techniques for one setting often having natural counterparts in the other. However, the notion of density ratio modeling, an emerging paradigm in offline RL, has been largely absent from online RL, perhaps for good reason: the very existence and boundedness of density ratios relies on access to an exploratory dataset with good coverage, but the core challenge in online RL is to collect such a dataset without having one to start. In this work we show -- perhaps surprisingly -- that density ratio-based algorithms have online counterparts. Assuming only the existence of an exploratory distribution with good coverage, a structural condition known as coverability (Xie et al., 2023), we give a new algorithm (GLOW) that uses density ratio realizability and value function realizability to perform sample-efficient online exploration. GLOW addresses unbounded density ratios via careful use of truncation, and combines this with optimism to guide exploration. GLOW is computationally inefficient; we complement it with a more efficient counterpart, HyGLOW, for the Hybrid RL setting (Song et al., 2022) wherein online RL is augmented with additional offline data. HyGLOW is derived as a special case of a more general meta-algorithm that provides a provable black-box reduction from hybrid RL to offline RL, which may be of independent interest.

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Dylan J. Foster, Alexander Rakhlin

These lecture notes give a statistical perspective on the foundations of reinforcement learning and interactive decision making. We present a unifying framework for addressing the exploration-exploitation dilemma using frequentist and Bayesian approaches, with connections and parallels between supervised learning/estimation and decision making as an overarching theme. Special attention is paid to function approximation and flexible model classes such as neural networks. Topics covered include multi-armed and contextual bandits, structured bandits, and reinforcement learning with high-dimensional feedback.

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Adam Block, Dylan J. Foster, Akshay Krishnamurthy, Max Simchowitz, Cyril Zhang

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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Zakaria Mhammedi, Adam Block, Dylan J. Foster, Alexander Rakhlin

A major challenge in reinforcement learning is to develop practical, sample-efficient algorithms for exploration in high-dimensional domains where generalization and function approximation is required. Low-Rank Markov Decision Processes -- where transition probabilities admit a low-rank factorization based on an unknown feature embedding -- offer a simple, yet expressive framework for RL with function approximation, but existing algorithms are either (1) computationally intractable, or (2) reliant upon restrictive statistical assumptions such as latent variable structure, access to model-based function approximation, or reachability. In this work, we propose the first provably sample-efficient algorithm for exploration in Low-Rank MDPs that is both computationally efficient and model-free, allowing for general function approximation and requiring no additional structural assumptions. Our algorithm, VoX, uses the notion of a generalized optimal design for the feature embedding as an efficiently computable basis for exploration, performing efficient optimal design computation by interleaving representation learning and policy optimization. Our analysis -- which is appealingly simple and modular -- carefully combines several techniques, including a new reduction from optimal design computation to policy optimization based on the Frank-Wolfe method, and an improved analysis of a certain minimax representation learning objective found in prior work.

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Dylan J. Foster, Dean P. Foster, Noah Golowich, Alexander Rakhlin

A central problem in the theory of multi-agent reinforcement learning (MARL) is to understand what structural conditions and algorithmic principles lead to sample-efficient learning guarantees, and how these considerations change as we move from few to many agents. We study this question in a general framework for interactive decision making with multiple agents, encompassing Markov games with function approximation and normal-form games with bandit feedback. We focus on equilibrium computation, in which a centralized learning algorithm aims to compute an equilibrium by controlling multiple agents that interact with an unknown environment. Our main contributions are: - We provide upper and lower bounds on the optimal sample complexity for multi-agent decision making based on a multi-agent generalization of the Decision-Estimation Coefficient, a complexity measure introduced by Foster et al. (2021) in the single-agent counterpart to our setting. Compared to the best results for the single-agent setting, our bounds have additional gaps. We show that no "reasonable" complexity measure can close these gaps, highlighting a striking separation between single and multiple agents. - We show that characterizing the statistical complexity for multi-agent decision making is equivalent to characterizing the statistical complexity of single-agent decision making, but with hidden (unobserved) rewards, a framework that subsumes variants of the partial monitoring problem. As a consequence, we characterize the statistical complexity for hidden-reward interactive decision making to the best extent possible. Building on this development, we provide several new structural results, including 1) conditions under which the statistical complexity of multi-agent decision making can be reduced to that of single-agent, and 2) conditions under which the so-called curse of multiple agents can be avoided.

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Andrew Wagenmaker, Dylan J. Foster

We consider the development of adaptive, instance-dependent algorithms for interactive decision making (bandits, reinforcement learning, and beyond) that, rather than only performing well in the worst case, adapt to favorable properties of real-world instances for improved performance. We aim for instance-optimality, a strong notion of adaptivity which asserts that, on any particular problem instance, the algorithm under consideration outperforms all consistent algorithms. Instance-optimality enjoys a rich asymptotic theory originating from the work of \citet{lai1985asymptotically,graves1997asymptotically}, but non-asymptotic guarantees have remained elusive outside of certain special cases. Even for problems as simple as tabular reinforcement learning, existing algorithms do not attain instance-optimal performance until the number of rounds of interaction is doubly exponential in the number of states. In this paper, we take the first step toward developing a non-asymptotic theory of instance-optimal decision making with general function approximation. We introduce a new complexity measure, the Allocation-Estimation Coefficient (AEC), and provide a new algorithm, $\mathsf{AE}^2$, which attains non-asymptotic instance-optimal performance at a rate controlled by the AEC. Our results recover the best known guarantees for well-studied problems such as finite-armed and linear bandits and, when specialized to tabular reinforcement learning, attain the first instance-optimal regret bounds with polynomial dependence on all problem parameters, improving over prior work exponentially. We complement these results with lower bounds that show that i) existing notions of statistical complexity are insufficient to derive non-asymptotic guarantees, and ii) under certain technical conditions, boundedness of the AEC is necessary to learn an instance-optimal allocation of decisions in finite time.

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Zakaria Mhammedi, Dylan J. Foster, Alexander Rakhlin

We study the design of sample-efficient algorithms for reinforcement learning in the presence of rich, high-dimensional observations, formalized via the Block MDP problem. Existing algorithms suffer from either 1) computational intractability, 2) strong statistical assumptions that are not necessarily satisfied in practice, or 3) suboptimal sample complexity. We address these issues by providing the first computationally efficient algorithm that attains rate-optimal sample complexity with respect to the desired accuracy level, with minimal statistical assumptions. Our algorithm, MusIK, combines systematic exploration with representation learning based on multi-step inverse kinematics, a learning objective in which the aim is to predict the learner's own action from the current observation and observations in the (potentially distant) future. MusIK is simple and flexible, and can efficiently take advantage of general-purpose function approximation. Our analysis leverages several new techniques tailored to non-optimistic exploration algorithms, which we anticipate will find broader use.

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Dylan J. Foster, Noah Golowich, Sham M. Kakade

We consider the problem of decentralized multi-agent reinforcement learning in Markov games. A fundamental question is whether there exist algorithms that, when adopted by all agents and run independently in a decentralized fashion, lead to no-regret for each player, analogous to celebrated convergence results in normal-form games. While recent work has shown that such algorithms exist for restricted settings (notably, when regret is defined with respect to deviations to Markovian policies), the question of whether independent no-regret learning can be achieved in the standard Markov game framework was open. We provide a decisive negative resolution this problem, both from a computational and statistical perspective. We show that: - Under the widely-believed assumption that PPAD-hard problems cannot be solved in polynomial time, there is no polynomial-time algorithm that attains no-regret in general-sum Markov games when executed independently by all players, even when the game is known to the algorithm designer and the number of players is a small constant. - When the game is unknown, no algorithm, regardless of computational efficiency, can achieve no-regret without observing a number of episodes that is exponential in the number of players. Perhaps surprisingly, our lower bounds hold even for seemingly easier setting in which all agents are controlled by a a centralized algorithm. They are proven via lower bounds for a simpler problem we refer to as SparseCCE, in which the goal is to compute a coarse correlated equilibrium that is sparse in the sense that it can be represented as a mixture of a small number of product policies. The crux of our approach is a novel application of aggregation techniques from online learning, whereby we show that any algorithm for the SparseCCE problem can be used to compute approximate Nash equilibria for non-zero sum normal-form games.

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