Reinforcement learning with function approximation can be unstable and even divergent, especially when combined with off-policy learning and Bellman updates. In deep reinforcement learning, these issues have been dealt with empirically by adapting and regularizing the representation, in particular with auxiliary tasks. This suggests that representation learning may provide a means to guarantee stability. In this paper, we formally show that there are indeed nontrivial state representations under which the canonical SARSA algorithm is stable, even when learning off-policy. We analyze representation learning schemes that are based on the transition matrix of a policy, such as proto-value functions, along three axes: approximation error, stability, and ease of estimation. In the most general case of a defective transition matrix, we show that a Schur basis provides convergence guarantees, but is difficult to estimate from samples. For a fixed reward function, we find that an orthogonal basis of the corresponding Krylov subspace is an even better choice. We conclude by empirically demonstrating that these stable representations can be learned using stochastic gradient descent, opening the door to improved techniques for representation learning with deep networks.
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