StateMask: Explaining Deep Reinforcement Learning through State Mask

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

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Zelei Cheng, Xian Wu, Jiahao Yu, Wenhai Sun, Wenbo Guo, Xinyu Xing


Despite the promising performance of deep reinforcement learning (DRL) agents in many challenging scenarios, the black-box nature of these agents greatly limits their applications in critical domains. Prior research has proposed several explanation techniques to understand the deep learning-based policies in RL. Most existing methods explain why an agent takes individual actions rather than pinpointing the critical steps to its final reward. To fill this gap, we propose StateMask, a novel method to identify the states most critical to the agent's final reward. The high-level idea of StateMask is to learn a mask net that blinds a target agent and forces it to take random actions at some steps without compromising the agent's performance. Through careful design, we can theoretically ensure that the masked agent performs similarly to the original agent. We evaluate StateMask in various popular RL environments and show its superiority over existing explainers in explanation fidelity. We also show that StateMask has better utilities, such as launching adversarial attacks and patching policy errors.