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Towards mental time travel: a hierarchical memory for reinforcement learning agents

Andrew Lampinen · Stephanie Chan · Andrea Banino · Felix Hill

Keywords: [ Meta Learning ] [ Reinforcement Learning and Planning ]


Reinforcement learning agents often forget details of the past, especially after delays or distractor tasks. Agents with common memory architectures struggle to recall and integrate across multiple timesteps of a past event, or even to recall the details of a single timestep that is followed by distractor tasks. To address these limitations, we propose a Hierarchical Chunk Attention Memory (HCAM), that helps agents to remember the past in detail. HCAM stores memories by dividing the past into chunks, and recalls by first performing high-level attention over coarse summaries of the chunks, and then performing detailed attention within only the most relevant chunks. An agent with HCAM can therefore "mentally time-travel"--remember past events in detail without attending to all intervening events. We show that agents with HCAM substantially outperform agents with other memory architectures at tasks requiring long-term recall, retention, or reasoning over memory. These include recalling where an object is hidden in a 3D environment, rapidly learning to navigate efficiently in a new neighborhood, and rapidly learning and retaining new words. Agents with HCAM can extrapolate to task sequences much longer than they were trained on, and can even generalize zero-shot from a meta-learning setting to maintaining knowledge across episodes. HCAM improve agent sample efficiency, generalization, and generality (by solving tasks that previously required specialized architectures). Our work is a step towards agents that can learn, interact, and adapt in complex and temporally-extended environments.

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