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Adversarial Cheap Talk
Christopher Lu · Timon Willi · Alistair Letcher · Jakob Foerster

Adversarial attacks in reinforcement learning (RL) often assume highly-privileged access to the learning agent’s parameters, environment or data. Instead, this paper proposes a novel adversarial setting called a Cheap Talk MDP in which an Adversary has a minimal range of influence over the Victim. Parameterised as a deterministic policy that only conditions on the current state, an Adversary can merely append information to a Victim’s observation. To motivate the minimum-viability, we prove that in this setting the Adversary cannot occlude the ground truth, influence the underlying dynamics of the environment, introduce non-stationarity, add stochasticity, see the Victim’s actions, or access their parameters. Additionally, we present a novel meta-learning algorithm to train the Adversary, called adversarial cheap talk (ACT). Using ACT, we demonstrate that the resulting Adversary still manages to influence the Victim’s training and test performance despite these restrictive assumptions. Affecting train-time performance reveals a new attack vector and provides insight into the success and failure modes of existing RL algorithms. More specifically, we show that an ACT Adversary is capable of harming performance by interfering with the learner’s function approximation and helping the Victim’s performance by appending useful features. Finally, we demonstrate that an ACT Adversary can append information during train-time to directly and arbitrarily control the Victim at test-time in a zero-shot manner.

Author Information

Christopher Lu (University of Oxford)
Timon Willi (University of Oxford)
Alistair Letcher (None)
Jakob Foerster (Oxford university)
Jakob Foerster

Jakob Foerster started as an Associate Professor at the department of engineering science at the University of Oxford in the fall of 2021. During his PhD at Oxford he helped bring deep multi-agent reinforcement learning to the forefront of AI research and interned at Google Brain, OpenAI, and DeepMind. After his PhD he worked as a research scientist at Facebook AI Research in California, where he continued doing foundational work. He was the lead organizer of the first Emergent Communication workshop at NeurIPS in 2017, which he has helped organize ever since and was awarded a prestigious CIFAR AI chair in 2019. His past work addresses how AI agents can learn to cooperate and communicate with other agents, most recently he has been developing and addressing the zero-shot coordination problem setting, a crucial step towards human-AI coordination.

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