Maximize to Explore: One Objective Function Fusing Estimation, Planning, and Exploration

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Zhihan Liu, Miao Lu, WEI XIONG, Han Zhong, Hao Hu, Shenao Zhang, Sirui Zheng, Zhuoran Yang, Zhaoran Wang


In reinforcement learning (RL), balancing exploration and exploitation is crucial for achieving an optimal policy in a sample-efficient way. To this end, existing sample- efficient algorithms typically consist of three components: estimation, planning, and exploration. However, to cope with general function approximators, most of them involve impractical algorithmic components to incentivize exploration, such as data-dependent level-set constraints or complicated sampling procedures. To address this challenge, we propose an easy-to-implement RL framework called Maximize to Explore (MEX), which only needs to optimize unconstrainedly a single objective that integrates the estimation and planning components while balancing exploration and exploitation automatically. Theoretically, we prove that the MEX achieves a sublinear regret with general function approximators and is extendable to the zero-sum Markov game setting. Meanwhile, we adapt deep RL baselines to design practical versions of MEX in both the model-based and model-free settings, which outperform baselines in various MuJoCo environments with sparse reward by a stable margin. Compared with existing sample-efficient algorithms with general function approximators, MEX achieves similar sample efficiency while also enjoying a lower computational cost and is more compatible with modern deep RL methods.