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Variational Policy Gradient Method for Reinforcement Learning with General Utilities
Junyu Zhang · Alec Koppel · Amrit Singh Bedi · Csaba Szepesvari · Mengdi Wang

Tue Dec 08 09:00 AM -- 11:00 AM (PST) @ Poster Session 1 #204

In recent years, reinforcement learning systems with general goals beyond a cumulative sum of rewards have gained traction, such as in constrained problems, exploration, and acting upon prior experiences. In this paper, we consider policy optimization in Markov Decision Problems, where the objective is a general utility function of the state-action occupancy measure, which subsumes several of the aforementioned examples as special cases. Such generality invalidates the Bellman equation. As this means that dynamic programming no longer works, we focus on direct policy search. Analogously to the Policy Gradient Theorem \cite{sutton2000policy} available for RL with cumulative rewards, we derive a new Variational Policy Gradient Theorem for RL with general utilities, which establishes that the gradient may be obtained as the solution of a stochastic saddle point problem involving the Fenchel dual of the utility function. We develop a variational Monte Carlo gradient estimation algorithm to compute the policy gradient based on sample paths. Further, we prove that the variational policy gradient scheme converges globally to the optimal policy for the general objective, and we also establish its rate of convergence that matches or improves the convergence rate available in the case of RL with cumulative rewards.

Author Information

Junyu Zhang (Princeton University)
Alec Koppel (U.S. Army Research Laboratory)
Amrit Singh Bedi (US Army Research Laboratory)
Csaba Szepesvari (DeepMind / University of Alberta)
Mengdi Wang (Princeton University)

Mengdi Wang is interested in data-driven stochastic optimization and applications in machine and reinforcement learning. She received her PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013. At MIT, Mengdi was affiliated with the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and was advised by Dimitri P. Bertsekas. Mengdi became an assistant professor at Princeton in 2014. She received the Young Researcher Prize in Continuous Optimization of the Mathematical Optimization Society in 2016 (awarded once every three years).

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