GAI: Introduction to Reinforcement Learning

This post is part of a series “The Quest for General Artificial Intelligence”. To access the index for this series click here.

Reinforcement Learning (RL) is an exciting approach to Machine Learning (ML) that has gained significant attention in the last years due to a number of remarkable achievements, culminating with the DeepMind’s success against Lee Sedol in 2016. What makes RL particularly attractive is the fact that it seems to provide a mechanism to learn behaviour without any intervention from outside, and it is very common in the literature to see the expression “on its own” being used to describe the learning process that a given model goes through in order to produce a particular desired behaviour.

While this is true to a large degree, there are elements in our current “classical” RL model that make it limited by design and dependent on arbitrary decisions taken by the programmer. This is not compatible with the idea of a General AI that would equal or surpass human abilities in a general way.

I will try to introduce a number of fundamental changes to the classical Reinforcement Learning model that, at least in my opinion, will remove some of these self-imposed limitations and free the model towards a level of generalisation that we all in the AI community aspire to.

I will start by presenting the current formal representation of a RL model, as introduced by Sutton and Barto in 1998 [1].

Fig 1. RL model (from Sutton & Barto, 1998)

The model assumes an Environment and an Agent. The Agent is that part that we want to exhibit “intelligent” behaviour while the Environment is everything else outside this Agent. The Environment is described by a State at a given point in time s_t that can be observed by the Agent and the Agent interacts with the Environment by taking an Action a_t. The result of this action plus any internal process within the Environment produces a change (transition) that is reflected in the state at the next time step s_{t+1}, and the cycle repeats. What is important for RL (hence the “reinforcement” term in the title) is that the Agent also receives a Reward r_t reflecting how well it performed.

The purpose of a RL model is to maximize the total Reward over a period of time (and the fine print of the actual model implementation decides about what this “period of time” might be and if the rewards received are subject to any time decay, etc.). This is in general represented by a Policy \pi that maps the state s_t to action a_t and the role of the Agent is to learn the policy \pi^* (called the Optimal Policy) that maximises the total reward over the desired “long term” period.

All models and algorithms apply different techniques to determine this \pi^* policy (or one as close as possible to it) using either ways to quantify the value of being in a particular state and from there using a simple policy to determine the next action to take (value-based methods) or directly inferring the action from the state (policy-based methods). Additional improvements have been proposed over time to help with the convergence of the training process (RL is notoriously difficult to train) or the speed, but fundamentally they use the model above to represent the interaction between the Environment and the Agent as well as the complexity of the Environment.

Despite recent advances in the use of RL for solving complex ML problems, it is still the case that:

  • RL models are limited to defined tasks and there is very little advance towards a General Intelligence
  • State space dimensionality has an exponential impact on the performance of the model and trying to tackle general problems soon becomes prohibitively complex
  • The models are very slow to train and seem to lack the “human intuition” when it comes to interpreting rewards
  • The actions taken by the Agent are assumed to actually happen in the Environment and the stochastic nature of the actual outcomes of these actions is rarely considered

In the following sections I will introduce a number of changes to the classical Reinforcement Learning model that, in my view, will help overcome these limitations and formalise a more general representation of the problem.


[1] R. Sutton, A. Barto: Reinforcement Learning: An Introduction, 1998

This post is part of a series “The Quest for General Artificial Intelligence”. To access the index for this series click here.