What is reinforcement learning?

Reinforcement learning is the training of machine learning models to make a sequence of decisions. The agent learns to achieve a goal in an uncertain, potentially complex environment. In reinforcement learning, an artificial intelligence faces a game-like situation. The computer employs trial and error to come up with a solution to the problem. To get the machine to do what the programmer wants, the artificial intelligence gets either rewards or penalties for the actions it performs. Its goal is to maximize the total reward.
Although the designer sets the reward policy–that is, the rules of the game–he gives the model no hints or suggestions for how to solve the game. It’s up to the model to figure out how to perform the task to maximize the reward, starting from totally random trials and finishing with sophisticated tactics and superhuman skills.

By leveraging the power of search and many trials, reinforcement learning is currently the most effective way to hint machine’s creativity. In contrast to human beings, artificial intelligence can gather experience from thousands of parallel gameplays if a reinforcement learning algorithm is run on a sufficiently powerful computer infrastructure.

Reinforcement Learning

Examples of reinforcement learning

Applications of reinforcement learning were in the past limited by weak computer infrastructure. However, as Gerard Tesauro’s backgamon AI superplayer developed in 1990’s shows, progress did happen. That early progress is now rapidly changing with powerful new computational technologies opening the way to completely new inspiring applications.
Training the models that control autonomous cars is an excellent example of a potential application of reinforcement learning. In an ideal situation, the computer should get no instructions on driving the car.

The programmer would avoid hard-wiring anything connected with the task and allow the machine to learn from its own errors. In a perfect situation, the only hard-wired element would be the reward function.

  1. For example, in usual circumstances we would require an autonomous vehicle to put safety first, minimize ride time, reduce pollution, offer passengers comfort and obey the rules of law. With an autonomous race car, on the other hand, we would emphasize speed much more than the driver’s comfort. The programmer cannot predict everything that could happen on the road. Instead of building lengthy “if-then” instructions, the programmer prepares the reinforcement learning agent to be capable of learning from the system of rewards and penalties. The agent (another name for reinforcement learning algorithms performing the task) gets rewards for reaching specific goals.
  2. Another example: writex.ai took part in the “Learning to run” project, which aimed to train a virtual runner from scratch. The runner is an advanced and precise musculoskeletal model designed by the Stanford Neuromuscular Biomechanics Laboratory. Learning the agent how to run is a first step in building a new generation of prosthetic legs, ones that automatically recognize people’s walking patterns and tweak themselves to make moving easier and more effective. While it is possible and has been done in Stanford’s labs, hard-wiring all the commands and predicting all possible patterns of walking requires a lot of work from highly skilled programmers.

Challenges with reinforcement learning

The main challenge in reinforcement learning lays in preparing the simulation environment, which is highly dependant on the task to be performed. When the model has to go superhuman in Chess, Go or Atari games, preparing the simulation environment is relatively simple. When it comes to building a model capable of driving an autonomous car, building a realistic simulator is crucial before letting the car ride on the street.

The model has to figure out how to brake or avoid a collision in a safe environment, where sacrificing even a thousand cars comes at a minimal cost. Transferring the model out of the training environment and into to the real world is where things get tricky.

Scaling and tweaking the neural network controlling the agent is another challenge. There is no way to communicate with the network other than through the system of rewards and penalties.This in particular may lead to catastrophic forgetting, where acquiring new knowledge causes some of the old to be erased from the network.

Yet another challenge is reaching a local optimum – that is the agent performs the task as it is, but not in the optimal or required way. A “jumper” jumping like a kangaroo instead of doing the thing that was expected of it-walking-is a great example, and is also one that can be found in our recent blog post.

Finally, there are agents that will optimize the prize without performing the task it was designed for. An interesting example can be found in the OpenAI video below, where the agent learned to gain rewards, but not to complete the race.

What distinguishes reinforcement learning from deep learning and machine learning?

In fact, there should be no clear divide between machine learning, deep learning and reinforcement learning. It is like a parallelogram – rectangle – square relation, where machine learning is the broadest category and the deep reinforcement learning the most narrow one.
In the same way, reinforcement learning is a specialized application of machine and deep learning techniques, designed to solve problems in a particular way.