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Workshop: NeurIPS 2022 Workshop on Meta-Learning

Adversarial Cheap Talk

Chris Lu · Timon Willi · Alistair Letcher · Jakob Foerster


Adversarial attacks in reinforcement learning (RL) often assume highly-privileged access to the victim’s parameters, environment, or data. Instead, this paper proposes a novel adversarial setting called a Cheap Talk MDP in which an Adversary can merely append deterministic messages to the Victim’s observation, resulting in a minimal range of influence. The Adversary cannot occlude ground truth, influence underlying environment dynamics or reward signals, introduce non-stationarity, add stochasticity, see the Victim’s actions, or access their parameters. Additionally, we present a simple meta-learning algorithm called Adversarial Cheap Talk (ACT) to train Adversaries in this setting. We demonstrate that an Adversary trained with ACT can still significantly influence the Victim’s training and testing performance, despite the highly constrained setting. Affecting train-time performance reveals a new attack vector and provides insight into the success and failure modes of existing RL algorithms. More specifically, we show that an ACT Adversary is capable of harming performance by interfering with the learner’s function approximation, or instead helping the Victim’s performance by outputting useful features. Finally, we show that an ACT Adversary can manipulate messages during train-time to directly and arbitrarily control the Victim at test-time.

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