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Abstract:The problem of pure exploration in Markov decision processes has been cast as maximizing the entropy over the state distribution induced by the agent's policy, an objective that has been extensively studied. However, little attention has been dedicated to state entropy maximization under partial observability, despite the latter being ubiquitous in applications, e.g., finance and robotics, in which the agent only receives noisy observations of the true state governing the system's dynamics. How can we address state entropy maximization in those domains? In this paper, we study the simple approach of maximizing the entropy over observations in place of true latent states. First, we provide lower and upper bounds to the approximation of the true state entropy that only depends on some properties of the observation function. Then, we show how knowledge of the latter can be exploited to compute a principled regularization of the observation entropy to improve performance. With this work, we provide both a flexible approach to bring advances in state entropy maximization to the POMDP setting and a theoretical characterization of its intrinsic limits.

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Abstract:In online Inverse Reinforcement Learning (IRL), the learner can collect samples about the dynamics of the environment to improve its estimate of the reward function. Since IRL suffers from identifiability issues, many theoretical works on online IRL focus on estimating the entire set of rewards that explain the demonstrations, named the feasible reward set. However, none of the algorithms available in the literature can scale to problems with large state spaces. In this paper, we focus on the online IRL problem in Linear Markov Decision Processes (MDPs). We show that the structure offered by Linear MDPs is not sufficient for efficiently estimating the feasible set when the state space is large. As a consequence, we introduce the novel framework of rewards compatibility, which generalizes the notion of feasible set, and we develop CATY-IRL, a sample efficient algorithm whose complexity is independent of the cardinality of the state space in Linear MDPs. When restricted to the tabular setting, we demonstrate that CATY-IRL is minimax optimal up to logarithmic factors. As a by-product, we show that Reward-Free Exploration (RFE) enjoys the same worst-case rate, improving over the state-of-the-art lower bound. Finally, we devise a unifying framework for IRL and RFE that may be of independent interest.

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Abstract:Recent works have studied *state entropy maximization* in reinforcement learning, in which the agent's objective is to learn a policy inducing high entropy over states visitation (Hazan et al., 2019). They typically assume full observability of the state of the system, so that the entropy of the observations is maximized. In practice, the agent may only get *partial* observations, e.g., a robot perceiving the state of a physical space through proximity sensors and cameras. A significant mismatch between the entropy over observations and true states of the system can arise in those settings. In this paper, we address the problem of entropy maximization over the *true states* with a decision policy conditioned on partial observations *only*. The latter is a generalization of POMDPs, which is intractable in general. We develop a memory and computationally efficient *policy gradient* method to address a first-order relaxation of the objective defined on *belief* states, providing various formal characterizations of approximation gaps, the optimization landscape, and the *hallucination* problem. This paper aims to generalize state entropy maximization to more realistic domains that meet the challenges of applications.

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Abstract:Meta reinforcement learning sets a distribution over a set of tasks on which the agent can train at will, then is asked to learn an optimal policy for any test task efficiently. In this paper, we consider a finite set of tasks modeled through Markov decision processes with various dynamics. We assume to have endured a long training phase, from which the set of tasks is perfectly recovered, and we focus on regret minimization against the optimal policy in the unknown test task. Under a separation condition that states the existence of a state-action pair revealing a task against another, Chen et al. (2022) show that $O(M^2 \log(H))$ regret can be achieved, where $M, H$ are the number of tasks in the set and test episodes, respectively. In our first contribution, we demonstrate that the latter rate is nearly optimal by developing a novel lower bound for test-time regret minimization under separation, showing that a linear dependence with $M$ is unavoidable. Then, we present a family of stronger yet reasonable assumptions beyond separation, which we call strong identifiability, enabling algorithms achieving fast rates $\log (H)$ and sublinear dependence with $M$ simultaneously. Our paper provides a new understanding of the statistical barriers of test-time regret minimization and when fast rates can be achieved.

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Abstract:Inverse reinforcement learning (IRL) aims to recover the reward function of an expert agent from demonstrations of behavior. It is well known that the IRL problem is fundamentally ill-posed, i.e., many reward functions can explain the demonstrations. For this reason, IRL has been recently reframed in terms of estimating the feasible reward set, thus, postponing the selection of a single reward. However, so far, the available formulations and algorithmic solutions have been proposed and analyzed mainly for the online setting, where the learner can interact with the environment and query the expert at will. This is clearly unrealistic in most practical applications, where the availability of an offline dataset is a much more common scenario. In this paper, we introduce a novel notion of feasible reward set capturing the opportunities and limitations of the offline setting and we analyze the complexity of its estimation. This requires the introduction an original learning framework that copes with the intrinsic difficulty of the setting, for which the data coverage is not under control. Then, we propose two computationally and statistically efficient algorithms, IRLO and PIRLO, for addressing the problem. In particular, the latter adopts a specific form of pessimism to enforce the novel desirable property of inclusion monotonicity of the delivered feasible set. With this work, we aim to provide a panorama of the challenges of the offline IRL problem and how they can be fruitfully addressed.

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Abstract:The study of reinforcement learning from human feedback (RLHF) has gained prominence in recent years due to its role in the development of LLMs. Neuroscience research shows that human responses to stimuli are known to depend on partially-observed "internal states." Unfortunately current models of RLHF do not take take this into consideration. Moreover most RLHF models do not account for intermediate feedback, which is gaining importance in empirical work and can help improve both sample complexity and alignment. To address these limitations, we model RLHF as reinforcement learning with partially observed reward-states (PORRL). We show reductions from the the two dominant forms of human feedback in RLHF - cardinal and dueling feedback to PORRL. For cardinal feedback, we develop generic statistically efficient algorithms and instantiate them to present POR-UCRL and POR-UCBVI. For dueling feedback, we show that a naive reduction to cardinal feedback fails to achieve sublinear dueling regret. We then present the first explicit reduction that converts guarantees for cardinal regret to dueling regret. We show that our models and guarantees in both settings generalize and extend existing ones. Finally, we identify a recursive structure on our model that could improve the statistical and computational tractability of PORRL, giving examples from past work on RLHF as well as learning perfect reward machines, which PORRL subsumes.

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Abstract:Posterior sampling allows the exploitation of prior knowledge of the environment's transition dynamics to improve the sample efficiency of reinforcement learning. The prior is typically specified as a class of parametric distributions, a task that can be cumbersome in practice, often resulting in the choice of uninformative priors. In this work, we propose a novel posterior sampling approach in which the prior is given as a (partial) causal graph over the environment's variables. The latter is often more natural to design, such as listing known causal dependencies between biometric features in a medical treatment study. Specifically, we propose a hierarchical Bayesian procedure, called C-PSRL, simultaneously learning the full causal graph at the higher level and the parameters of the resulting factored dynamics at the lower level. For this procedure, we provide an analysis of its Bayesian regret, which explicitly connects the regret rate with the degree of prior knowledge. Our numerical evaluation conducted in illustrative domains confirms that C-PSRL strongly improves the efficiency of posterior sampling with an uninformative prior while performing close to posterior sampling with the full causal graph.

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Abstract:The most relevant problems in discounted reinforcement learning involve estimating the mean of a function under the stationary distribution of a Markov reward process, such as the expected return in policy evaluation, or the policy gradient in policy optimization. In practice, these estimates are produced through a finite-horizon episodic sampling, which neglects the mixing properties of the Markov process. It is mostly unclear how this mismatch between the practical and the ideal setting affects the estimation, and the literature lacks a formal study on the pitfalls of episodic sampling, and how to do it optimally. In this paper, we present a minimax lower bound on the discounted mean estimation problem that explicitly connects the estimation error with the mixing properties of the Markov process and the discount factor. Then, we provide a statistical analysis on a set of notable estimators and the corresponding sampling procedures, which includes the finite-horizon estimators often used in practice. Crucially, we show that estimating the mean by directly sampling from the discounted kernel of the Markov process brings compelling statistical properties w.r.t. the alternative estimators, as it matches the lower bound without requiring a careful tuning of the episode horizon.

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Abstract:In reinforcement learning, we encode the potential behaviors of an agent interacting with an environment into an infinite set of policies, the policy space, typically represented by a family of parametric functions. Dealing with such a policy space is a hefty challenge, which often causes sample and computation inefficiencies. However, we argue that a limited number of policies are actually relevant when we also account for the structure of the environment and of the policy parameterization, as many of them would induce very similar interactions, i.e., state-action distributions. In this paper, we seek for a reward-free compression of the policy space into a finite set of representative policies, such that, given any policy $\pi$, the minimum R\'enyi divergence between the state-action distributions of the representative policies and the state-action distribution of $\pi$ is bounded. We show that this compression of the policy space can be formulated as a set cover problem, and it is inherently NP-hard. Nonetheless, we propose a game-theoretic reformulation for which a locally optimal solution can be efficiently found by iteratively stretching the compressed space to cover an adversarial policy. Finally, we provide an empirical evaluation to illustrate the compression procedure in simple domains, and its ripple effects in reinforcement learning.

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Authors:Mirco Mutti, Riccardo De Santi, Emanuele Rossi, Juan Felipe Calderon, Michael Bronstein, Marcello Restelli

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Abstract:In the sequential decision making setting, an agent aims to achieve systematic generalization over a large, possibly infinite, set of environments. Such environments are modeled as discrete Markov decision processes with both states and actions represented through a feature vector. The underlying structure of the environments allows the transition dynamics to be factored into two components: one that is environment-specific and another one that is shared. Consider a set of environments that share the laws of motion as an illustrative example. In this setting, the agent can take a finite amount of reward-free interactions from a subset of these environments. The agent then must be able to approximately solve any planning task defined over any environment in the original set, relying on the above interactions only. Can we design a provably efficient algorithm that achieves this ambitious goal of systematic generalization? In this paper, we give a partially positive answer to this question. First, we provide the first tractable formulation of systematic generalization by employing a causal viewpoint. Then, under specific structural assumptions, we provide a simple learning algorithm that allows us to guarantee any desired planning error up to an unavoidable sub-optimality term, while showcasing a polynomial sample complexity.

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