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VIREL: A Variational Inference Framework for Reinforcement Learning

Applying probabilistic models to reinforcement learning (RL) enables the application of powerful optimisation tools such as variational inference to RL. However, existing inference frameworks and their algorithms pose significant challenges for learning optimal policies, e.g., the absence of mode capturing behaviour in pseudo-likelihood methods and difficulties learning deterministic policies in maximum entropy RL based approaches. We propose VIREL, a novel, theoretically grounded probabilistic inference framework for RL that utilises a parametrised action-value function to summarise future dynamics of the underlying MDP. This gives VIREL a mode-seeking form of KL divergence, the ability to learn deterministic optimal polices naturally from inference and the ability to optimise value functions and policies in separate, iterative steps. In applying variational expectation-maximisation to VIREL we thus show that the actor-critic algorithm can be reduced to expectation-maximisation, with policy improvement equivalent to an E-step and policy evaluation to an M-step. We then derive a family of actor-critic methods from VIREL, including a scheme for adaptive exploration. Finally, we demonstrate that actor-critic algorithms from this family outperform state-of-the-art methods based on soft value functions in several domains.

Matthew Fellows, Anuj Mahajan, Tim G. J. Rudner, Shimon Whiteson
NeurIPS, 2019
NeurIPS 2018 Workshop on Probabilistic Reinforcement Learning and Structured Control
[arXiv] [BibTex]

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