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Harley Wiltzer, Jesse Farebrother, Arthur Gretton, Yunhao Tang, André Barreto, Will Dabney, Marc G. Bellemare, Mark Rowland

This paper contributes a new approach for distributional reinforcement learning which elucidates a clean separation of transition structure and reward in the learning process. Analogous to how the successor representation (SR) describes the expected consequences of behaving according to a given policy, our distributional successor measure (SM) describes the distributional consequences of this behaviour. We formulate the distributional SM as a distribution over distributions and provide theory connecting it with distributional and model-based reinforcement learning. Moreover, we propose an algorithm that learns the distributional SM from data by minimizing a two-level maximum mean discrepancy. Key to our method are a number of algorithmic techniques that are independently valuable for learning generative models of state. As an illustration of the usefulness of the distributional SM, we show that it enables zero-shot risk-sensitive policy evaluation in a way that was not previously possible.

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Max Schwarzer, Jesse Farebrother, Joshua Greaves, Ekin Dogus Cubuk, Rishabh Agarwal, Aaron Courville, Marc G. Bellemare, Sergei Kalinin, Igor Mordatch, Pablo Samuel Castro, Kevin M. Roccapriore

We introduce a machine learning approach to determine the transition dynamics of silicon atoms on a single layer of carbon atoms, when stimulated by the electron beam of a scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM). Our method is data-centric, leveraging data collected on a STEM. The data samples are processed and filtered to produce symbolic representations, which we use to train a neural network to predict transition probabilities. These learned transition dynamics are then leveraged to guide a single silicon atom throughout the lattice to pre-determined target destinations. We present empirical analyses that demonstrate the efficacy and generality of our approach.

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Johan Obando-Ceron, Marc G. Bellemare, Pablo Samuel Castro

In value-based deep reinforcement learning with replay memories, the batch size parameter specifies how many transitions to sample for each gradient update. Although critical to the learning process, this value is typically not adjusted when proposing new algorithms. In this work we present a broad empirical study that suggests {\em reducing} the batch size can result in a number of significant performance gains; this is surprising, as the general tendency when training neural networks is towards larger batch sizes for improved performance. We complement our experimental findings with a set of empirical analyses towards better understanding this phenomenon.

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Nate Rahn, Pierluca D'Oro, Harley Wiltzer, Pierre-Luc Bacon, Marc G. Bellemare

Deep reinforcement learning agents for continuous control are known to exhibit significant instability in their performance over time. In this work, we provide a fresh perspective on these behaviors by studying the return landscape: the mapping between a policy and a return. We find that popular algorithms traverse noisy neighborhoods of this landscape, in which a single update to the policy parameters leads to a wide range of returns. By taking a distributional view of these returns, we map the landscape, characterizing failure-prone regions of policy space and revealing a hidden dimension of policy quality. We show that the landscape exhibits surprising structure by finding simple paths in parameter space which improve the stability of a policy. To conclude, we develop a distribution-aware procedure which finds such paths, navigating away from noisy neighborhoods in order to improve the robustness of a policy. Taken together, our results provide new insight into the optimization, evaluation, and design of agents.

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Charline Le Lan, Stephen Tu, Mark Rowland, Anna Harutyunyan, Rishabh Agarwal, Marc G. Bellemare, Will Dabney

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).

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Mark Rowland, Yunhao Tang, Clare Lyle, Rémi Munos, Marc G. Bellemare, Will Dabney

We study the problem of temporal-difference-based policy evaluation in reinforcement learning. In particular, we analyse the use of a distributional reinforcement learning algorithm, quantile temporal-difference learning (QTD), for this task. We reach the surprising conclusion that even if a practitioner has no interest in the return distribution beyond the mean, QTD (which learns predictions about the full distribution of returns) may offer performance superior to approaches such as classical TD learning, which predict only the mean return, even in the tabular setting.

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Jesse Farebrother, Joshua Greaves, Rishabh Agarwal, Charline Le Lan, Ross Goroshin, Pablo Samuel Castro, Marc G. Bellemare

Auxiliary tasks improve the representations learned by deep reinforcement learning agents. Analytically, their effect is reasonably well understood; in practice, however, their primary use remains in support of a main learning objective, rather than as a method for learning representations. This is perhaps surprising given that many auxiliary tasks are defined procedurally, and hence can be treated as an essentially infinite source of information about the environment. Based on this observation, we study the effectiveness of auxiliary tasks for learning rich representations, focusing on the setting where the number of tasks and the size of the agent's network are simultaneously increased. For this purpose, we derive a new family of auxiliary tasks based on the successor measure. These tasks are easy to implement and have appealing theoretical properties. Combined with a suitable off-policy learning rule, the result is a representation learning algorithm that can be understood as extending Mahadevan & Maggioni (2007)'s proto-value functions to deep reinforcement learning -- accordingly, we call the resulting object proto-value networks. Through a series of experiments on the Arcade Learning Environment, we demonstrate that proto-value networks produce rich features that may be used to obtain performance comparable to established algorithms, using only linear approximation and a small number (~4M) of interactions with the environment's reward function.

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Mark Rowland, Rémi Munos, Mohammad Gheshlaghi Azar, Yunhao Tang, Georg Ostrovski, Anna Harutyunyan, Karl Tuyls, Marc G. Bellemare, Will Dabney

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.

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Charline Le Lan, Joshua Greaves, Jesse Farebrother, Mark Rowland, Fabian Pedregosa, Rishabh Agarwal, Marc G. Bellemare

Many machine learning problems encode their data as a matrix with a possibly very large number of rows and columns. In several applications like neuroscience, image compression or deep reinforcement learning, the principal subspace of such a matrix provides a useful, low-dimensional representation of individual data. Here, we are interested in determining the $d$-dimensional principal subspace of a given matrix from sample entries, i.e. from small random submatrices. Although a number of sample-based methods exist for this problem (e.g. Oja's rule \citep{oja1982simplified}), these assume access to full columns of the matrix or particular matrix structure such as symmetry and cannot be combined as-is with neural networks \citep{baldi1989neural}. In this paper, we derive an algorithm that learns a principal subspace from sample entries, can be applied when the approximate subspace is represented by a neural network, and hence can be scaled to datasets with an effectively infinite number of rows and columns. Our method consists in defining a loss function whose minimizer is the desired principal subspace, and constructing a gradient estimate of this loss whose bias can be controlled. We complement our theoretical analysis with a series of experiments on synthetic matrices, the MNIST dataset \citep{lecun2010mnist} and the reinforcement learning domain PuddleWorld \citep{sutton1995generalization} demonstrating the usefulness of our approach.

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Yunhao Tang, Mark Rowland, Rémi Munos, Bernardo Ávila Pires, Will Dabney, Marc G. Bellemare

We study the multi-step off-policy learning approach to distributional RL. Despite the apparent similarity between value-based RL and distributional RL, our study reveals intriguing and fundamental differences between the two cases in the multi-step setting. We identify a novel notion of path-dependent distributional TD error, which is indispensable for principled multi-step distributional RL. The distinction from the value-based case bears important implications on concepts such as backward-view algorithms. Our work provides the first theoretical guarantees on multi-step off-policy distributional RL algorithms, including results that apply to the small number of existing approaches to multi-step distributional RL. In addition, we derive a novel algorithm, Quantile Regression-Retrace, which leads to a deep RL agent QR-DQN-Retrace that shows empirical improvements over QR-DQN on the Atari-57 benchmark. Collectively, we shed light on how unique challenges in multi-step distributional RL can be addressed both in theory and practice.

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