Policy Gradient Algorithms Implicitly Optimize by Continuation

Published: 21 Oct 2023, Last Modified: 21 Oct 2023Accepted by TMLREveryoneRevisionsBibTeX
Abstract: Direct policy optimization in reinforcement learning is usually solved with policy-gradient algorithms, which optimize policy parameters via stochastic gradient ascent. This paper provides a new theoretical interpretation and justification of these algorithms. First, we formulate direct policy optimization in the optimization by continuation framework. The latter is a framework for optimizing nonconvex functions where a sequence of surrogate objective functions, called continuations, are locally optimized. Second, we show that optimizing affine Gaussian policies and performing entropy regularization can be interpreted as implicitly optimizing deterministic policies by continuation. Based on these theoretical results, we argue that exploration in policy-gradient algorithms consists in computing a continuation of the return of the policy at hand, and that the variance of policies should be history-dependent functions adapted to avoid local extrema rather than to maximize the return of the policy.
Submission Length: Regular submission (no more than 12 pages of main content)
Assigned Action Editor: ~Martha_White1
License: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Submission Number: 1157