Gradient-based approaches to direct policy search in reinforcement learning have received much recent attention as a means to solve problems of partial observability and to avoid some of the problems associated with policy degradation in value-function methods. In this paper we introduce GPOMDP, a simulation-based algorithm for generating a biased estimate of the gradient of the average reward in Partially Observable Markov Decision Processes POMDPs controlled by parameterized stochastic policies. A similar algorithm was proposed by (Kimura et al. 1995). The algorithm's chief advantages are that it requires storage of only twice the number of policy parameters, uses one free beta (which has a natural interpretation in terms of bias-variance trade-off), and requires no knowledge of the underlying state. We prove convergence of GPOMDP, and show how the correct choice of the parameter beta is related to the mixing time of the controlled POMDP. We briefly describe extensions of GPOMDP to controlled Markov chains, continuous state, observation and control spaces, multiple-agents, higher-order derivatives, and a version for training stochastic policies with internal states. In a companion paper (Baxter et al., this volume) we show how the gradient estimates generated by GPOMDP can be used in both a traditional stochastic gradient algorithm and a conjugate-gradient procedure to find local optima of the average reward.

Greensmith, Evan, Bartlett, Peter L., Baxter, Jonathan

We consider the use of two additive control variate methods to reduce the variance of performance gradient estimates in reinforcement learning problems.The first approach we consider is the baseline method, in which a function of the current state is added to the discounted value estimate. We relate the performance of these methods, which use sample paths,to the variance of estimates based on iid data. We derive the baseline function that minimizes this variance, and we show that the variance forany baseline is the sum of the optimal variance and a weighted squared distance to the optimal baseline. We show that the widely used average discounted value baseline (where the reward is replaced by the difference between the reward and its expectation) is suboptimal. The second approach we consider is the actor-critic method, which uses an approximate value function. We give bounds on the expected squared error of its estimates. We show that minimizing distance to the true value function is suboptimal in general; we provide an example for which the true value function gives an estimate with positive variance, but the optimal valuefunction gives an unbiased estimate with zero variance. Our bounds suggest algorithms to estimate the gradient of the performance of parameterized baseline or value functions.

Baxter, J., Bartlett, P. L., Weaver, L.

In this paper, we present algorithms that perform gradient ascent of the average reward in a partially observable Markov decision process (POMDP). These algorithms are based on GPOMDP, an algorithm introduced in a companion paper (Baxter & Bartlett, this volume), which computes biased estimates of the performance gradient in POMDPs. The algorithm's chief advantages are that it uses only one free parameter beta, which has a natural interpretation in terms of bias-variance trade-off, it requires no knowledge of the underlying state, and it can be applied to infinite state, control and observation spaces. We show how the gradient estimates produced by GPOMDP can be used to perform gradient ascent, both with a traditional stochastic-gradient algorithm, and with an algorithm based on conjugate-gradients that utilizes gradient information to bracket maxima in line searches. Experimental results are presented illustrating both the theoretical results of (Baxter & Bartlett, this volume) on a toy problem, and practical aspects of the algorithms on a number of more realistic problems.

Bartlett, P. L., Baxter, J., Weaver, L.

In this paper, we present algorithms that perform gradient ascent of the average reward in a partially observable Markov decision process (POMDP). These algorithms are based on GPOMDP, an algorithm introduced in a companion paper (Baxter and Bartlett, this volume), which computes biased estimates of the performance gradient in POMDPs. The algorithm's chief advantages are that it uses only one free parameter beta, which has a natural interpretation in terms of bias-variance trade-off, it requires no knowledge of the underlying state, and it can be applied to infinite state, control and observation spaces. We show how the gradient estimates produced by GPOMDP can be used to perform gradient ascent, both with a traditional stochastic-gradient algorithm, and with an algorithm based on conjugate-gradients that utilizes gradient information to bracket maxima in line searches. Experimental results are presented illustrating both the theoretical results of (Baxter and Bartlett, this volume) on a toy problem, and practical aspects of the algorithms on a number of more realistic problems.