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The Reinforcement Learning Approach

Reinforcement Learning (RL) corrects all three drawbacks of the traditional approach. First, RL requires very little programmer effort, because most of the work is done by a process of automatic training, not programming. Second, if the environment changes, the training can be re-run, without any additional programming. In fact, retraining can be done continuously, online, as the system runs. Third, RL is mathematically guaranteed to converge to an optimal policy (given certain assumptions described later).

What does an agent need to know in order to take optimal actions? Clearly, it would be a big help if the agent could predict the reward function, the reward it would receive from taking a given action in a given state. But that would not be enough. Consider an empty elevator that is approaching the seventh floor on its way up, and assume that there are passengers waiting to go down on the seventh, eighth, and ninth floors. Stopping at the seventh floor would give a larger immediate reward than either continuing on up or reversing direction. But if we did stop at the seventh floor, we would have to take the passenger there down, and return later for the other passengers. A wiser strategy---one with a better long-term reward---would be to bypass the seventh and eighth floors and pick up the passengers on the ninth floor first and then go down, picking up the passengers on the eighth and seventh floors on the way.

The problem is that the reward function just captures the immediate or short-term consequences of executing actions. What we need instead is a function that captures the long-term consequences. Such a function is called a utility function.

Intuitively, the utility of taking action in some state is the expected immediate reward for that action plus the sum of the long-term rewards over the rest of the agent's lifetime, assuming it acts using the best policy. Equations (1) and (2) in Section 3.1 formally define the utility function.

If we knew the utility function, then the optimal policy would be to enumerate all possible actions and choose the action with the highest utility. Solving the elevator problem therefore reduces to learning the utility function. Theoretically, it is possible to exactly solve for the utility function. Equation (3) in Section 3.1 shows how the utility of a state is related to immediate reward and the utility of the resulting state. If there are n actions and m states, this defines a system of n m nonlinear equations in n m unknowns, which can be solved by standard methods, such as dynamic programming (Bertsekas [2]). In practice, however, this rarely works.

One problem is that our simulation model of the elevator system consists of probability distributions for passenger arrivals and destinations, etc. In order to compute the expectations in Equation 4 to do dynamic programming, we must first convert our simulation model into a model of state transition probabilities. Doing so is computationally expensive. Another problem is that in our elevator example the state-transition probabilities are continuous, so even if we had them, computing the expectations would be very expensive. Finally, Equation 4 requires an iteration over the entire state space of the system. Our elevator example has more than states --- iterating over all of them is impossible. If we did not have a simulation model to begin with, doing dynamic programming would first require estimating a model by experimenting with the real elevator system.

Reinforcement Learning is an iterative approach that eliminates these problems to comes up with an approximate solution to the utility function. The basic idea is to start with some initial guess of the utility function, and to use experience with the elevator system to improve that guess. To gain experience, one needs either a simulated elevator system or the ability to select actions and acquire data from the real elevator system. In either case, the experience that the program acquires is a state-action trajectory with associated rewards (see Figure 3). On each step through the trajectory, the agent takes some action and receives some reward. The reward is information that it can use to update its estimate of the utility function, according to Equation (5) in Section 3.1. By focusing computation on the states that actually occur in the simulation, RL is able to deal with larger state spaces than dynamic programming methods. As the program gains more experience, the difference between its estimated utility function and the true utility function decreases.

Figure: The program's experience consists of a trajectory through state space. At time step t, the state is and the agent faces a choice of actions. Denote the action the agent chooses to execute at step t as . The reward at step t, , is a function of and . The next state depends on , and many random things such as passengers arriving at floors and pushing buttons. Reinforcement learning allows a program to use such a trajectory to incrementally improve its policy.

We are finally able to say exactly how RL allows us to write an elevator control program:

(1) Code up a simulation of the elevator system. Make some measurements or estimates of passenger arrival rates and other parameters, and write a program to simulate the elevator environment.

(2) Determine the reward function.

(3) Make an initial guess at a utility function. This can be based on simple rules like ``it is better to move up if there is a passenger waiting above.'' The details are not important, because the guess will be improved.

(4) Run the simulation, updating the utility function on each step using Equation (5). Given enough time to explore in the simulated system, our program will converge to a near-optimal policy.

(5) The final version of the program can then be used to control the real elevator system. If desired, the program could continually monitor its performance and update its utility function to reflect changes in the real environment.

next up previous
Next: Equations for Reinforcement Up: How to Make Software Previous: The Elevator Problem