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Why Generalization in RL is Difficult: Epistemic POMDPs and Implicit Partial Observability
Dibya Ghosh · Jad Rahme · Aviral Kumar · Amy Zhang · Ryan P. Adams · Sergey Levine

Generalization is a central challenge for the deployment of reinforcement learning (RL) systems in the real world. In this paper, we show that the sequential structure of the RL problem necessitates new approaches to generalization beyond the well-studied techniques used in supervised learning. While supervised learning methods can generalize effectively without explicitly accounting for epistemic uncertainty, we describe why appropriate uncertainty handling can actually be essential in RL. We show that generalization to unseen test conditions from a limited number of training conditions induces a kind of implicit partial observability, effectively turning even fully-observed MDPs into POMDPs. Informed by this observation, we recast the problem of generalization in RL as solving the induced partially observed Markov decision process, which we call the epistemic POMDP. We demonstrate the failure modes of algorithms that do not appropriately handle this partial observability, and suggest a simple ensemble-based technique for approximately solving the partially observed problem. Empirically, we demonstrate that our simple algorithm derived from the epistemic POMDP achieves significant gains in generalization over current methods on the Procgen benchmark suite.

Author Information

Dibya Ghosh (Google)
Jad Rahme (Princeton University)
Aviral Kumar (UC Berkeley)
Amy Zhang (McGill University)
Ryan P. Adams (Princeton University)
Sergey Levine (UC Berkeley)
Sergey Levine

Sergey Levine received a BS and MS in Computer Science from Stanford University in 2009, and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University in 2014. He joined the faculty of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley in fall 2016. His work focuses on machine learning for decision making and control, with an emphasis on deep learning and reinforcement learning algorithms. Applications of his work include autonomous robots and vehicles, as well as computer vision and graphics. His research includes developing algorithms for end-to-end training of deep neural network policies that combine perception and control, scalable algorithms for inverse reinforcement learning, deep reinforcement learning algorithms, and more.

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