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Workshop: Human in the Loop Learning (HiLL) Workshop at NeurIPS 2022

(When) Are Contrastive Explanations of Reinforcement Learning Helpful?

Sanjana Narayanan · Isaac Lage · Finale Doshi-Velez


Global explanations of a reinforcement learning (RL) agent's expected behavior can make it safer to deploy. However, such explanations are often difficult to understand because of the complicated nature of many RL policies. Effective human explanations are often contrastive, referencing a known contrast (policy) to reduce redundancy. At the same time, these explanations also require the additional effort of referencing that contrast when evaluating an explanation. We conduct a user study to understand whether and when contrastive explanations might be preferable to complete explanations that do not require referencing a contrast. We find that complete explanations are generally more effective when they are the same size or smaller than a contrastive explanation of the same policy, and no worse when they are larger. This suggests that contrastive explanations are not sufficient to solve the problem of effectively explaining reinforcement learning policies, and require additional careful study for use in this context.

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