The Curious Price of Distributional Robustness in Reinforcement Learning with a Generative Model

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

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Laixi Shi, Gen Li, Yuting Wei, Yuxin Chen, Matthieu Geist, Yuejie Chi


This paper investigates model robustness in reinforcement learning (RL) via the framework of distributionally robust Markov decision processes (RMDPs). Despite recent efforts, the sample complexity of RMDPs is much less understood regardless of the uncertainty set in use; in particular, there exist large gaps between existing upper and lower bounds, and it is unclear if distributional robustness bears any statistical implications when benchmarked against standard RL. In this paper, assuming access to a generative model, we derive the sample complexity of RMDPs---when the uncertainty set is measured via either total variation or $\chi^2$ divergence over the full range of uncertainty levels---using a model-based algorithm called distributionally robust value iteration, and develop minimax lower bounds to benchmark its tightness. Our results not only strengthen the prior art in both directions of upper and lower bounds, but also deliver surprising messages that learning RMDPs is not necessarily easier or more difficult than standard MDPs. In the case of total variation, we establish the minimax-optimal sample complexity of RMDPs which is always smaller than that of standard MDPs. In the case of $\chi^2$ divergence, we establish the sample complexity of RMDPs that is tight up to polynomial factors of the effective horizon, and grows linearly with respect to the uncertainty level when it approaches infinity.