Provably Good Batch Off-Policy Reinforcement Learning Without Great Exploration

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 33 (NeurIPS 2020)

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Yao Liu, Adith Swaminathan, Alekh Agarwal, Emma Brunskill


Batch reinforcement learning (RL) is important to apply RL algorithms to many high stakes tasks. Doing batch RL in a way that yields a reliable new policy in large domains is challenging: a new decision policy may visit states and actions outside the support of the batch data, and function approximation and optimization with limited samples can further increase the potential of learning policies with overly optimistic estimates of their future performance. Some recent approaches to address these concerns have shown promise, but can still be overly optimistic in their expected outcomes. Theoretical work that provides strong guarantees on the performance of the output policy relies on a strong concentrability assumption, which makes it unsuitable for cases where the ratio between state-action distributions of behavior policy and some candidate policies is large. This is because, in the traditional analysis, the error bound scales up with this ratio. We show that using \emph{pessimistic value estimates} in the low-data regions in Bellman optimality and evaluation back-up can yield more adaptive and stronger guarantees when the concentrability assumption does not hold. In certain settings, they can find the approximately best policy within the state-action space explored by the batch data, without requiring a priori assumptions of concentrability. We highlight the necessity of our pessimistic update and the limitations of previous algorithms and analyses by illustrative MDP examples and demonstrate an empirical comparison of our algorithm and other state-of-the-art batch RL baselines in standard benchmarks.