Understanding Curriculum Learning in Policy Optimization for Online Combinatorial Optimization

Published: 06 Nov 2023, Last Modified: 06 Nov 2023Accepted by TMLREveryoneRevisionsBibTeX
Abstract: Over the recent years, reinforcement learning (RL) starts to show promising results in tackling combinatorial optimization (CO) problems, in particular when coupled with curriculum learning to facilitate training. Despite emerging empirical evidence, theoretical study on why RL helps is still at its early stage. This paper presents the first systematic study on policy optimization methods for online CO problems. We show that online CO problems can be naturally formulated as latent Markov Decision Processes (LMDPs), and prove convergence bounds on natural policy gradient (NPG) for solving LMDPs. Furthermore, our theory explains the benefit of curriculum learning: it can find a strong sampling policy and reduce the distribution shift, a critical quantity that governs the convergence rate in our theorem. For a canonical online CO problem, the Best Choice Problem (BCP), we formally prove that distribution shift is reduced exponentially with curriculum learning even if the curriculum is a randomly generated BCP on a smaller scale. Our theory also shows we can simplify the curriculum learning scheme used in prior work from multi-step to single-step. Lastly, we provide extensive experiments on the Best Choice Problem, Online Knapsack, and AdWords to verify our findings.
Submission Length: Regular submission (no more than 12 pages of main content)
Changes Since Last Submission: Remove blue color for rebuttal revision; Add links to github repository.
Code: https://github.com/zhourunlong/RL-for-Combinatorial-Optimization
Supplementary Material: zip
Assigned Action Editor: ~Chicheng_Zhang1
License: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Submission Number: 1348