Methods for direct search in policy space, such as stochastic hill-climbing (SHC) and genetic algorithms (GAs), test policy candidates during time-limited trials, then build new policy candidates from some of the policies with highest evaluations observed so far. As mentioned above, the advantage of this general approach over traditional RL algorithms is that few restrictions need to be imposed on the nature of the agent's interaction with the environment. In particular, if the policy allows for actions that manipulate the content of some sort of short-term memory then the environment does not need to be fully observable -- in principle, direct methods such as Genetic Programming [CramerCramer1985,Banzhaf, Nordin, Keller, FranconeBanzhaf et al.1998], adaptive Levin Search [Schmidhuber, Zhao, WieringSchmidhuber et al.1997b], or Probabilistic Incremental Program Evolution [Saustowicz SchmidhuberSaustowicz Schmidhuber1997], can be used for searching spaces of complex, event-memorizing programs or algorithms as opposed to simple, memory-free, reactive mappings from inputs to actions.
As pointed out above, a disadvantage of traditional direct methods is that they lack a principled way of dealing with unknown delays and stochastic policy evaluations. In contrast to typical trials executed by direct methods, however, an SSA trial of any previous policy modification never ends unless its reward/time ratio drops below that of the most recent previously started (still unfinished) effective trial. Here we will go beyond previous work [Schmidhuber, Zhao, SchraudolphSchmidhuber et al.1997a,Schmidhuber, Zhao, WieringSchmidhuber et al.1997b] by clearly demonstrating how a direct method can benefit from augmentation by SSA in presence of unknown temporal delays and stochastic performance evaluations.
Task [Schmidhuber ZhaoSchmidhuber Zhao1999]. We tried to come up with the simplest task sufficient to illustrate the drawbacks of standard DS algorithms and the way SSA overcomes them. Hence, instead of studying tasks that require to learn complex programs setting and resetting memory contents (as mentioned above, such complex tasks provide a main motivation for using DS), we use a comparatively simple two-armed bandit problem.
There are two arms A and B. Pulling arm A will yield reward 1000 with probability 0.01 and reward -1 with probability 0.99. Pulling arm B will yield reward 1 with probability 0.99 and reward -1000 with probability 0.01. All rewards are delayed by 5 pulls. There is an agent that knows neither the reward distributions nor the delays. Since this section's goal is to study policy search under uncertainty we equip the agent with the simplest possible stochastic policy consisting of a single variable ( ): at a given time arm A is chosen with probability , otherwise B is chosen. Modifying the policy in a very limited, SHC-like way (see below) and observing the long-term effects is the only way the agent may collect information that might be useful for improving the policy. Its goal is to maximize the entire reward obtained during its life-time which is limited to 30,000 pulls. The maximal cumulative reward is 270300 (always choose arm A), the minimum is -270300 (always choose arm B). Random arm selection yields expected reward 0.
Obviously the task is non-trivial, because the long-term effects of a small change in will be hard to detect, and will require significant statistical sampling.
It is besides the point of this paper that our prior knowledge of the problem suggests a more informed alternative approach such as ``pull arm A for trials, then arm B for trials, then commit to the best.'' Even cleverer optimizers would try various assumptions about the delay lengths and pull arms in turn until one was statistically significantly better than the other, given a particular delay assumption. We do not allow this, however: we make the task hard by requiring the agent to learn solely from observations of outcomes of limited, SHC-like policy mutations (details below). After all, in partially observable environments that are much more complex and realistic (but less analyzable) than ours this often is the only reasonable thing to do.
Stochastic Hill-Climbing (SHC). SHC may be the simplest incremental algorithm using direct search in policy space. It should be mentioned, however, that despite its simplicity SHC often outperforms more complex direct methods such as GAs [Juels WattenbergJuels Wattenberg1996]. Anyway, SHC and more complex population-based direct algorithms such as GAs, GP, and evolution strategies are equally affected by the central questions of this paper: how many trials should be spent on the evaluation of a given policy? How long should a trial take?
We implement SHC as follows: 1. Initialize policy to 0.5, and real-valued variables and to and 0, respectively. 2. If there have been more than pulls then exit ( is an integer constant). Otherwise evaluate by measuring the average reward obtained during the next consecutive pulls. 3. If then , else and . 4. Randomly perturb by adding either -0.1 or +0.1 except when this would lead outside the interval [0,1]. Go to 2.
Problem. Like any direct search algorithm SHC faces the fundamental question raised in section 2: how long to evaluate the current policy to obtain statistically significant results without wasting too much time? To examine this issue we vary . Our prior knowledge of the problem tells us that should exceed 5 to handle the 5-step reward delays. But due to the stochasticity of the rewards, much larger s are required for reliable evaluations of some policy's ``true'' performance. Of course, the disadvantage of long trials is the resulting small number of possible training exemplars and policy changes (learning steps) to be executed during the limited life which lasts just 30,000 steps.
Comparison 1. We compare SHC to a combination of SSA and SHC, which we implement just like SHC except that we replace step 3 by a checkpoint (SSA-invocation -- see section 6).
Comparison 2. To illustrate potential benefits of policies that influence the way they learn we also compare to SSA applied to a primitive ``self-modifying policy'' (SMP) with two modifiable parameters: (with same meaning as above) and ``learning rate'' (initially 0). After each checkpoint, is replaced by , then is replaced by . In this sense SMP itself influences the way it changes, albeit in a way that is much more limited than the one in previous papers [Schmidhuber, Zhao, SchraudolphSchmidhuber et al.1997a,SchmidhuberSchmidhuber1999]. If then it will be randomly set to either or . If ( ) then it will be replaced by 0.5 (-0.5). If () then it will be set to 1 (0).
One apparent danger with this approach is that accelerating the learning rate may result in unstable behavior. We will see, however, that SSA precisely prevents this from happening by eventually undoing those learning rate modifications that are not followed by reliable long-term performance improvement.
Results. For all three methods Figure 1 plots lifelong cumulative reward (mean of 100 independent runs) against varying from 10 to 600 pulls with a step size of 10 pulls. For most values of , SHC fails to realize the long-term benefits of choosing arm A. SSA/SHC, however, always yields satisfactory results because it does not care whether is much too short to obtain statistically significant policy evaluations. Instead it retrospectively readjusts the ``effective'' trial starts: at any given checkpoint, each previous checkpoint in marks the begin of a new trial lasting up to the current checkpoint. Each such trial start corresponds to a lifelong reward-acceleration. The corresponding policy modifications gain more and more empirical justification as they keep surviving successive SSA calls, thus becoming more and more stable.
Still, SSA/SHC's performance slowly declines with increasing since this implies less possible policy changes and less effective trials due to limited life-time. SSA/SMP (comparison 2), however, does not much suffer from this problem since it boldly increases the learning rate as long as this is empirically observed to accelerate long-term reward intake. As soon as this is not the case any longer, however, SSA prevents further learning rate accelerations, thus avoiding unstable behavior. This primitive type of learning algorithm self-modification outperforms SSA/SHC. In fact, some of the surviving effective trials may be viewed as "metalearning trials": SSA essentially observes the long term effects of certain learning rates whose values are influenced by the policy itself, and undoes those that tend to cause ``bad" additional policy modifications setting the stage for worse performance in subsequent trials.
Trials Shorter Than Delays. We also tested the particularly interesting case . Here SHC and other direct methods fail completely because the policy tested during the current trial has nothing to do with the test outcome (due to the delays). The SSA/SHC combination, however, still manages to collect cumulative performance of around 150,000. Unlike with SHC (and other direct methods) there is no need for a priori knowledge about ``good'' trial lengths, exactly because SSA retrospectively adjusts the effective trial sizes.
Comparable results were obtained with much longer delays. In particular, see a recent article [SchmidhuberSchmidhuber1999] for experiments with much longer life-times and unknown delays of the order of time steps.
A Complex Partially Observable Environment. This section's focus is on clarifying SSA's advantages over traditional DS in the simplest possible setting. It should be mentioned, however, that there have been much more challenging SSA applications in partially observable environments, which represent a major motivation of direct methods because most traditional RL methods are not applicable here. For instance, a previous paper [Schmidhuber, Zhao, SchraudolphSchmidhuber et al.1997a] describes two agents A and B living in a partially observable pixel environment with obstacles. They learn to solve a complex task that could not be solved by various TD() Q-learning variants [LinLin1993]. The task requires (1) agent A to find and take a key ``key A''; (2) agent A go to a door ``door A'' and open it for agent B; (3) agent B to enter through ``door A'', find and take another key ``key B''; (4) agent B to go to another door ``door B'' to open it (to free the way to the goal); (5) one of the agents to reach the goal. Both agents share the same design. Each is equipped with limited ``active'' sight: by executing certain instructions, it can sense obstacles, its own key, the corresponding door, or the goal, within up to 50 pixels in front of it. The agent can also move forward, turn around, turn relative to its key or its door or the goal. It can use short-term memory to disambiguate inputs -- unlike Jaakkola et al.'s method (1995), ours is not limited to finding suboptimal stochastic policies for POEs with an optimal solution. Each agent can explicitly modify its own policy via special actions that can address and modify the probability distributions according to which action sequences (or ``subprograms") are selected (this also contributes to making the set-up highly non-Markovian). Reward is provided only if one of the agents touches the goal. This agent's reward is 5.0; the other's is 3.0 (for its cooperation -- note that asymmetric reward also introduces competition). Due to the complexity of the task, in the beginning the goal is found only every 300,000 actions on average (including actions that are primitive LAs and modify the policy). No prior information about good initial trial lengths is given to the system. Through self-modifications and SSA, however, within 130,000 goal hits ( actions) the average trial length decreases by a factor of 60 (mean of 4 simulations). Both agents learn to cooperate to accelerate reward intake, by retrospectively adjusting their effective trial lengths using SSA.
While this previous experimental research has already demonstrated SSA's applicability to large-scale partially observable environments, a study of why it performs well has been lacking. In particular, unlike the present work, previous work [Schmidhuber, Zhao, SchraudolphSchmidhuber et al.1997a] did not clearly identify SSA's fundamental advantages over alternative DS methods.