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Title: Sharper Model-free Reinforcement Learning for Average-reward Markov Decision Processes
We study model-free reinforcement learning (RL) algorithms for infinite-horizon average-reward Markov decision process (MDP), which is more appropriate for applications that involve continuing operations not divided into episodes. In contrast to episodic/discounted MDPs, theoretical understanding of model-free RL algorithms is relatively inadequate for the average-reward setting. In this paper, we consider both the online setting and the setting with access to a simulator. We develop computationally efficient model-free algorithms that achieve sharper guarantees on regret/sample complexity compared with existing results. In the online setting, we design an algorithm, UCB-AVG, based on an optimistic variant of variance-reduced Q-learning. We show that UCB-AVG achieves a regret bound $\widetilde{O}(S^5A^2sp(h^*)\sqrt{T})$ after $T$ steps, where $S\times A$ is the size of state-action space, and $sp(h^*)$ the span of the optimal bias function. Our result provides the first computationally efficient model-free algorithm that achieves the optimal dependence in $T$ (up to log factors) for weakly communicating MDPs, which is necessary for low regret. In contrast, prior results either are suboptimal in $T$ or require strong assumptions of ergodicity or uniformly mixing of MDPs. In the simulator setting, we adapt the idea of UCB-AVG to develop a model-free algorithm that finds an $\epsilon$-optimal policy with sample complexity $\widetilde{O}(SAsp^2(h^*)\epsilon^{-2} + S^2Asp(h^*)\epsilon^{-1}).$ This sample complexity is near-optimal for weakly communicating MDPs, in view of the minimax lower bound $\Omega(SAsp(^*)\epsilon^{-2})$. Existing work mainly focuses on ergodic MDPs and the results typically depend on $t_{mix},$ the worst-case mixing time induced by a policy. We remark that the diameter $D$ and mixing time $t_{mix}$ are both lower bounded by $sp(h^*)$, and $t_{mix}$ can be arbitrarily large for certain MDPs. On the technical side, our approach integrates two key ideas: learning an $\gamma$-discounted MDP as an approximation, and leveraging reference-advantage decomposition for variance in optimistic Q-learning. As recognized in prior work, a naive approximation by discounted MDPs results in suboptimal guarantees. A distinguishing feature of our method is maintaining estimates of value-difference between state pairs to provide a sharper bound on the variance of reference advantage. We also crucially use a careful choice of the discounted factor $\gamma$ to balance approximation error due to discounting and the statistical learning error, and we are able to maintain a good-quality reference value function with $O(SA)$ space complexity.  more » « less
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Conference on Learning Theory
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National Science Foundation
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