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Theses Doctoral

Optimization Foundations of Reinforcement Learning

Bhandari, Jalaj

Reinforcement learning (RL) has attracted rapidly increasing interest in the machine learning and artificial intelligence communities in the past decade. With tremendous success already demonstrated for Game AI, RL offers great potential for applications in more complex, real world domains, for example in robotics, autonomous driving and even drug discovery. Although researchers have devoted a lot of engineering effort to deploy RL methods at scale, many state-of-the art RL techniques still seem mysterious - with limited theoretical guarantees on their behaviour in practice.

In this thesis, we focus on understanding convergence guarantees for two key ideas in reinforcement learning, namely Temporal difference learning and policy gradient methods, from an optimization perspective. In Chapter 2, we provide a simple and explicit finite time analysis of Temporal difference (TD) learning with linear function approximation. Except for a few key insights, our analysis mirrors standard techniques for analyzing stochastic gradient descent algorithms, and therefore inherits the simplicity and elegance of that literature. Our convergence results extend seamlessly to the study of TD learning with eligibility traces, known as TD(λ), and to Q-learning for a class of high-dimensional optimal stopping problems.

In Chapter 3, we turn our attention to policy gradient methods and present a simple and general understanding of their global convergence properties. The main challenge here is that even for simple control problems, policy gradient algorithms face non-convex optimization problems and are widely understood to converge only to a stationary point of the objective. We identify structural properties -- shared by finite MDPs and several classic control problems -- which guarantee that despite non-convexity, any stationary point of the policy gradient objective is globally optimal. In the final chapter, we extend our analysis for finite MDPs to show linear convergence guarantees for many popular variants of policy gradient methods like projected policy gradient, Frank-Wolfe, mirror descent and natural policy gradients.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Industrial Engineering and Operations Research
Thesis Advisors
Russo, Daniel J.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 21, 2020