Tightening the Dependence on Horizon in the Sample Complexity of Q-Learning

Gen Li · Changxiao Cai · Yuxin Chen · Yuantao Gu · Yuting Wei · Yuejie Chi

[ Abstract ] [ Livestream: Visit Reinforcement Learning and Bandits ] [ Paper ]
Wed 21 Jul 7:15 a.m. — 7:20 a.m. PDT

Q-learning, which seeks to learn the optimal Q-function of a Markov decision process (MDP) in a model-free fashion, lies at the heart of reinforcement learning. Focusing on the synchronous setting (such that independent samples for all state-action pairs are queried via a generative model in each iteration), substantial progress has been made recently towards understanding the sample efficiency of Q-learning. To yield an entrywise $\varepsilon$-accurate estimate of the optimal Q-function, state-of-the-art theory requires at least an order of $\frac{|S||A|}{(1-\gamma)^5\varepsilon^{2}}$ samples in the infinite-horizon $\gamma$-discounted setting. In this work, we sharpen the sample complexity of synchronous Q-learning to the order of $\frac{|S||A|}{(1-\gamma)^4\varepsilon^2}$ (up to some logarithmic factor) for any $0<\varepsilon <1$, leading to an order-wise improvement in $\frac{1}{1-\gamma}$. Analogous results are derived for finite-horizon MDPs as well. Notably, our sample complexity analysis unveils the effectiveness of vanilla Q-learning, which matches that of speedy Q-learning without requiring extra computation and storage. Our result is obtained by identifying novel error decompositions and recursion relations, which might shed light on how to study other variants of Q-learning.

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