NeurIPS 2019
Sun Dec 8th through Sat the 14th, 2019 at Vancouver Convention Center
Paper ID:3918
Title:Non-Stationary Markov Decision Processes, a Worst-Case Approach using Model-Based Reinforcement Learning

Reviewer 1

UPDATE: I have read the authors response and increased my score. Specifically, the authors fixed my understanding of Property 1 and properly framed the relaxation of the problem in Section 5. Please include similar clarifications in the final work. There was also a lot of discussion among the reviewers about how the paper relates to the Robust MDP literature, which needs to be covered better in the current work. Papers such as "Reinforcement Learning in Robust Markov Decision Processes" and "Online Learning in Markov Decision Processes with Adversarially Chosen Transition Probability Distributions" were brought up by others and seem applicable in the current setting and could be empirical competitors to RATS. I very much like the constraints used to study planning in non-stationary environments in this paper and the min-max inspired RATS algorithm seems like an appropriate game theoretic approach. However, there are several clarity points that need to be addressed in the assumptions, and I feel the experiments need at least one other competitor from the long lineage of non-stationary planning or game theoretic decision-making approaches. Still the paper as is seems correct and makes progress in the literature. Clarifications needed: Property 1 seems stronger than I would have expected. By bounding changes in the reward function based on evolution of the transition function, you are assuming their evolution is correlated, and that lays the framework for the ultimate proof because the resulting Bellman backup will be bounded. Can the authors comment on how often they expect Property 1 to hold in practice? Are there environments they encountered where it did or did not hold. To my reading it sounds like a very strong assumption. The description of the assumptions around line 205 need clarification. I find this section difficult to follow. The authors claim be solving a relaxation of the problem, and violating property 2, but it is unclear to me what the new assumptions are. Can the authors clearly state “considering snapshots only constrained by MDP_0” actually means? Property 4 needs justification in the paper itself. Particularly, the construction and solving of the linear program referenced in the supplemental material should be mentioned here. It is an important detail. The experiments are both informative, but ultimately seem incomplete. I actually appreciate having a small grid-world where one can easily analyze the behavior of the algorithm, and I liked having the two book-ends as the competitors. I learned something from this experiment. However, I was disappointed that (1) none of the many other methods mentioned in the related work were applied, even if their assumptions did not hold, to see if RATS is really state of the art and (2) after all of the discussion of a heuristic function, there was no experimentation with various heuristics. Lesser points: Definition 3 – While Wasserstein is an acceptable choice in continuous physical environments, it seems like total variation may be a better fit in discrete environments. Indeed, much sample complexity analysis in discrete stationary MDPs utilize TV to compare learned models, so I would urge the authors to note this may yet be an acceptable measure in those environments, even though the current work focuses on more continuous domains. The literature review is fairly complete but lack discussion of game-theoretic tree search approaches, which seem highly applicable (though ultimately probably overpowered) here. Line 90 consider -> considers

Reviewer 2

Summary: This paper addresses the problem of non-stationary MDPs where the MDP continuously and smoothly changes over time even though this evolution is unknown (only the current MDP is known). More precisely, the non-stationary transition probability p_t is assumed to be Lipschitz-continuous in t w.r.t. the Wasserstein distance and the non-stationary reward is also assumed to be Lipschtz-continuous in t. To solve this problem, a new algorithm called RATS (Risk Averse Tree Search) is introduced. RATS assumes a worst-case evolution of the MDP and implements a minimax procedure. RATS is empirically evaluated on a toy domain. It performs similarly to an oracle that explicitly knows the evolution of p_t and r_t and clearly outperforms dynamic programming approaches that do not take into account non-stationarities. Clarity: The paper is well-written and all assumptions and claims are properly justified. The proofs are easy to follow and the algorithm is well-explained. Correctness: I only noticed a small typo in the proof of property 3: between lines 64 and 65, I think \lambda = C/ W_1(...) (the / is missing). This typo is also present in property 3 where I think that \lambda = L_p |t-t_0| / W_1(...) which seems more plausible. I think everything else is correct. Significance: The setting considered in this paper is new and relevant. The algorithm is also new and solves the problem. The authors acknowledge the weaknesses of their approach (e.g., lack of scalability of the algorithm). The paper may be borderline in terms of contributions for a conference like NeurIPS but I think overall it is good enough. When you mention the case where indices do not coincide with time (lines97 & 98), do you have in minds Semi-Markov Decision Processes? It would be worth mentionning the connection between the set of admissible snapshots and bounded-parameter MDPs ("Bounded Parameter Markov Decision Processes", R. Givan, S. Leach and T. Dean, 1997).

Reviewer 3

The paper proposes a problem of planning in non-stationary environments where the change is gradual. The gradual change assumption is formalized by stating a Lipschitzness assumption. The authors assume that only the model evolution is not known but the agent has access to the current model. Given this along with the Lipschitz assumption, the method constructs a set of admissible MDPs. A worst case value function is defined using this admissible set which can be easily derived from the smoothness property. For worst case planning with this set, the problem becomes combinatorial in specification as the constraint has to be respected for all time-steps. To avoid this, the authors relax the problem to a case where the constraints are only verified for with respect to the planning timestep t_0. With this, a minimax tree search approach is proposed and analyzed. The proofs are quite simple to understand and to my knowledge have no errors. However, the algorithm description can be a bit more clearer with apt description of the bottom up minimax planning description. A few comments regarding the methods: 1. Since, the Lipschitz assumption is taken over the time indices, the constant has to be quite small for the admissible models to be non-vacuous. Can the authors comment on the plausibility of this assumption? How does it compare with a setting where there is a bounded change assumption. What modification would the authors make for such a setting to RATS? 2. Since, the method is not computationally scalable, it is desirable to have a discussion of where things can be changed. 3. Can any guarantee be given for the relation between the actual objective (1,2) vs the relaxed version (3,4)? The related work in non-stationary learning problems is very nicely compiled. However, given the risk-aware planning nature of the problem, I think there should be a discussion in related work and experiments by considering methods from the robust MDP literature. The setting is arguably an instance of that where the robust (maxmin) planning needs to be done for the plausible MDP set. Also, the authors state this to be a zero-shot planning. It would be helpful to clearly state what the authors mean by zero-shot exactly in this setting. Further, apart from the theoretical contributions, a discussion about where this problem is relevant, practical instances and possibly a set of such experiments would strengthen the paper. ------------------------------- Update: I have read the author response and would maintain my initial rating. The technical contribution here is limited as it is not significantly challenging to apply minimax tree search algorithm to the rectangular uncertainty set after the relaxation. It would be nice to see how the relaxation affects the outcome by comparing with the brute force result in small domains.