Log-normality and Skewness of Estimated State/Action Values in Reinforcement Learning

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 30 (NIPS 2017)

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Liangpeng Zhang, Ke Tang, Xin Yao


Under/overestimation of state/action values are harmful for reinforcement learning agents. In this paper, we show that a state/action value estimated using the Bellman equation can be decomposed to a weighted sum of path-wise values that follow log-normal distributions. Since log-normal distributions are skewed, the distribution of estimated state/action values can also be skewed, leading to an imbalanced likelihood of under/overestimation. The degree of such imbalance can vary greatly among actions and policies within a single problem instance, making the agent prone to select actions/policies that have inferior expected return and higher likelihood of overestimation. We present a comprehensive analysis to such skewness, examine its factors and impacts through both theoretical and empirical results, and discuss the possible ways to reduce its undesirable effects.