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Provable Model-based Nonlinear Bandit and Reinforcement Learning: Shelve Optimism, Embrace Virtual Curvature

Kefan Dong · Jiaqi Yang · Tengyu Ma


Keywords: [ Bandits ] [ Online Learning ] [ Theory ] [ Reinforcement Learning and Planning ]


This paper studies model-based bandit and reinforcement learning (RL) with nonlinear function approximations. We propose to study convergence to approximate local maxima because we show that global convergence is statistically intractable even for one-layer neural net bandit with a deterministic reward. For both nonlinear bandit and RL, the paper presents a model-based algorithm, Virtual Ascent with Online Model Learner (ViOlin), which provably converges to a local maximum with sample complexity that only depends on the sequential Rademacher complexity of the model class. Our results imply novel global or local regret bounds on several concrete settings such as linear bandit with finite or sparse model class, and two-layer neural net bandit. A key algorithmic insight is that optimism may lead to over-exploration even for two-layer neural net model class. On the other hand, for convergence to local maxima, it suffices to maximize the virtual return if the model can also reasonably predict the gradient and Hessian of the real return.

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