Heuristic-Guided Reinforcement Learning

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 (NeurIPS 2021)

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Ching-An Cheng, Andrey Kolobov, Adith Swaminathan


We provide a framework to accelerate reinforcement learning (RL) algorithms by heuristics that are constructed by domain knowledge or offline data. Tabula rasa RL algorithms require environment interactions or computation that scales with the horizon of the sequential decision-making task. Using our framework, we show how heuristic-guided RL induces a much shorter horizon sub-problem that provably solves the original task. Our framework can be viewed as a horizon-based regularization for controlling bias and variance in RL under a finite interaction budget. In theory, we characterize the properties of a good heuristic and the resulting impact on RL acceleration. In particular, we introduce the novel concept of an improvable heuristic that can allow any RL agent to conservatively extrapolate beyond its prior knowledge. In practice, we instantiate our framework to accelerate several state-of-the-art algorithms in simulated robotic control tasks and procedurally generated games. Our framework complements the rich literature on warm-starting RL using expert demonstrations or exploratory data-sets, and creates a unified channel to inject prior knowledge into RL.