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Policy Gradient Agents

The policy gradient (PG) algorithm is a model-free, online, on-policy reinforcement learning method. A PG agent is a policy-based reinforcement learning agent that uses the REINFORCE algorithm to searches for an optimal policy that maximizes the expected cumulative long-term reward.

For more information on the different types of reinforcement learning agents, see Reinforcement Learning Agents.

PG agents can be trained in environments with the following observation and action spaces.

Observation SpaceAction Space
Discrete or continuousDiscrete or continuous

PG agents use the following actor and critic.

Critic (if a baseline is used)Actor

Value function critic V(S), which you create using rlValueFunction

Stochastic policy actor π(S), which you create using rlDiscreteCategoricalActor (for a for discrete action space) or rlContinuousGaussianActor (for a continuous action space).

During training, a PG agent:

  • Estimates probabilities of taking each action in the action space and randomly selects actions based on the probability distribution.

  • Completes a full training episode using the current policy before learning from the experience and updating the policy parameters.

If the UseDeterministicExploitation option in rlPGAgentOptions is set to true the action with maximum likelihood is always used in sim and generatePolicyFunction. This causes the simulated agent and the generated policy to behave deterministically.

Actor and Critic Function Approximators

PG agents represent the policy using an actor function approximator π(A|S;θ) with parameters θ. The actor outputs the conditional probability of taking each action A when in state S as one of the following:

  • Discrete action space — The probability of taking each discrete action. The sum of these probabilities across all actions is 1.

  • Continuous action space — The mean and standard deviation of the Gaussian probability distribution for each continuous action.

To reduce the variance during gradient estimation, PG agents can use a baseline value function, which is estimated using a critic function approximator, V(S;ϕ) with parameters ϕ. The critic computes the value function for a given observation state.

For more information on creating actors and critics for function approximation, see Create Policies and Value Functions.

During training, the agent tunes the parameter values in θ. After training, the parameters remain at their tuned value and the trained actor function approximator is stored in π(A|S).

Agent Creation

You can create a PG agent with default actor and critic based on the observation and action specifications from the environment. To do so, perform the following steps.

  1. Create observation specifications for your environment. If you already have an environment interface object, you can obtain these specifications using getObservationInfo.

  2. Create action specifications for your environment. If you already have an environment interface object, you can obtain these specifications using getActionInfo.

  3. If needed, specify the number of neurons in each learnable layer or whether to use an LSTM layer. To do so, create an agent initialization option object using rlAgentInitializationOptions.

  4. If needed, specify agent options using an rlPGAgentOptions object.

  5. Create the agent using an rlPGAgent object.

Alternatively, you can create actor and critic and use these objects to create your agent. In this case, ensure that the input and output dimensions of the actor and critic match the corresponding action and observation specifications of the environment.

  1. Create an actor using an rlDiscreteCategoricalActor (for a for discrete action space) or rlContinuousGaussianActor (for a continuous action space) object.

  2. If you are using a baseline function, create a critic using an rlValueFunction object.

  3. Specify agent options using the rlPGAgentOptions object.

  4. Create the agent using an rlPGAgent object.

For more information on creating actors and critics for function approximation, see Create Policies and Value Functions.

Training Algorithm

PG agents use the REINFORCE (Monte Carlo policy gradient) algorithm either with or without a baseline. To configure the training algorithm, specify options using an rlPGAgentOptions object.

REINFORCE Algorithm

  1. Initialize the actor π(S;θ) with random parameter values in θ.

  2. For each training episode, generate the episode experience by following actor policy π(S). To select an action, the actor generates probabilities for each action in the action space, then the agent randomly selects an action based on the probability distribution. The agent takes actions until it reaches the terminal state ST. The episode experience consists of the sequence

    S0,A0,R1,S1,,ST1,AT1,RT,ST

    Here, St is a state observation, At is an action taken from that state, St+1 is the next state, and Rt+1 is the reward received for moving from St to St+1.

  3. For each state in the episode sequence, that is, for t = 1, 2, …, T-1, calculate the return Gt, which is the discounted future reward.

    Gt=k=tTγktRk

  4. Accumulate the gradients for the actor network by following the policy gradient to maximize the expected discounted reward. If the EntropyLossWeight option is greater than zero, then additional gradients are accumulated to minimize the entropy loss function.

    dθ=t=1T1Gtθlnπ(St;θ)

  5. Update the actor parameters by applying the gradients.

    θ=θ+αdθ

    Here, α is the learning rate of the actor. Specify the learning rate when you create the actor by setting the LearnRate option in the rlActorOptimizerOptions property within the agent options object. For simplicity, this step shows a gradient update using basic stochastic gradient descent. The actual gradient update method depends on the optimizer you specify using in the rlOptimizerOptions object assigned to the rlActorOptimizerOptions property.

  6. Repeat steps 2 through 5 for each training episode until training is complete.

REINFORCE with Baseline Algorithm

  1. Initialize the actor π(S;θ) with random parameter values in θ.

  2. Initialize the critic V(S;ϕ) with random parameter values in ϕ.

  3. For each training episode, generate the episode experience by following the actor policy π(S). The episode experience consists of the sequence

    S0,A0,R1,S1,,ST1,AT1,RT,ST

  4. For t = 1, 2, …, T:

    • Calculate the return Gt, which is the discounted future reward.

      Gt=k=tTγktRk

    • Compute the advantage function δt using the baseline value function estimate from the critic.

      δt=GtV(St;ϕ)

  5. Accumulate the gradients for the critic network.

    dϕ=t=1T1δtϕV(St;ϕ)

  6. Accumulate the gradients for the actor network. If the EntropyLossWeight option is greater than zero, then additional gradients are accumulated to minimize the entropy loss function.

    dθ=t=1T1δtθlnπ(St;θ)

  7. Update the critic parameters ϕ.

    ϕ=ϕ+βdϕ

    Here, β is the learning rate of the critic. Specify the learning rate when you create the critic by setting the LearnRate option in the rlCriticOptimizerOptions property within the agent options object.

  8. Update the actor parameters θ.

    θ=θ+αdθ

  9. Repeat steps 3 through 8 for each training episode until training is complete.

For simplicity, the actor and critic updates in this algorithm show a gradient update using basic stochastic gradient descent. The actual gradient update method depends on the optimizer you specify using in the rlOptimizerOptions object assigned to the rlCriticOptimizerOptions property.

References

[1] Williams, Ronald J. “Simple Statistical Gradient-Following Algorithms for Connectionist Reinforcement Learning.” Machine Learning 8, no. 3–4 (May 1992): 229–56. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00992696.

See Also

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