When to use parametric models in reinforcement learning?When to use parametric models in reinforcement learning?van Hasselt, Hado and Hessel, Matteo and Aslanides, John2019
Paper summarydecodyngThis paper is a bit provocative (especially in the light of the recent DeepMind MuZero paper), and poses some interesting questions about the value of model-based planning. I'm not sure I agree with the overall argument it's making, but I think the experience of reading it made me hone my intuitions around why and when model-based planning should be useful.
The overall argument of the paper is: rather than learning a dynamics model of the environment and then using that model to plan and learn a value/policy function from, we could instead just keep a large replay buffer of actual past transitions, and use that in lieu of model-sampled transitions to further update our reward estimators without having to acquire more actual experience. In this paper's framing, the central value of having a learned model is this ability to update our policy without needing more actual experience, and it argues that actual real transitions from the environment are more reliable and less likely to diverge than transitions from a learned parametric model. It basically sees a big buffer of transitions as an empirical environment model that it can sample from, in a roughly equivalent way to being able to sample transitions from a learnt model.
An obvious counter-argument to this is the value of models in being able to simulate particular arbitrary trajectories (for example, potential actions you could take from your current point, as is needed for Monte Carlo Tree Search). Simply keeping around a big stock of historical transitions doesn't serve the use case of being able to get a probable next state *for a particular transition*, both because we might not have that state in our data, and because we don't have any way, just given a replay buffer, of knowing that an available state comes after an action if we haven't seen that exact combination before. (And, even if we had, we'd have to have some indexing/lookup mechanism atop the data). I didn't feel like the paper's response to this was all that convincing. It basically just argues that planning with model transitions can theoretically diverge (though acknowledges it empirically often doesn't), and that it's dangerous to update off of "fictional" modeled transitions that aren't grounded in real data. While it's obviously definitionally true that model transitions are in some sense fictional, that's just the basic trade-off of how modeling works: some ability to extrapolate, but a realization that there's a risk you extrapolate poorly.
The paper's empirical contribution to its argument was to argue that in a low-data setting, model-free RL (in the form of the "everything but the kitchen sink" Rainbow RL algorithm) with experience replay can outperform a model-based SimPLe system on Atari. This strikes me as fairly weak support for the paper's overall claim, especially since historically Atari has been difficult to learn good models of when they're learnt in actual-observation pixel space. Nonetheless, I think this push against the utility of model-based learning is a useful thing to consider if you do think models are useful, because it will help clarify the reasons why you think that's the case.