Model-Based Reparameterization Policy Gradient Methods: Theory and Practical Algorithms

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper


Shenao Zhang, Boyi Liu, Zhaoran Wang, Tuo Zhao


ReParameterization (RP) Policy Gradient Methods (PGMs) have been widely adopted for continuous control tasks in robotics and computer graphics. However, recent studies have revealed that, when applied to long-term reinforcement learning problems, model-based RP PGMs may experience chaotic and non-smooth optimization landscapes with exploding gradient variance, which leads to slow convergence. This is in contrast to the conventional belief that reparameterization methods have low gradient estimation variance in problems such as training deep generative models. To comprehend this phenomenon, we conduct a theoretical examination of model-based RP PGMs and search for solutions to the optimization difficulties. Specifically, we analyze the convergence of the model-based RP PGMs and pinpoint the smoothness of function approximators as a major factor that affects the quality of gradient estimation. Based on our analysis, we propose a spectral normalization method to mitigate the exploding variance issue caused by long model unrolls. Our experimental results demonstrate that proper normalization significantly reduces the gradient variance of model-based RP PGMs. As a result, the performance of the proposed method is comparable or superior to other gradient estimators, such as the Likelihood Ratio (LR) gradient estimator. Our code is available at