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3.1 The Agent-Environment Interface

The reinforcement learning problem is meant to be a straightforward framing of the problem of learning from interaction to achieve a goal. The learner and decision-maker is called the agent. The thing it interacts with, comprising everything outside the agent, is called the environment. These interact continually, the agent selecting actions and the environment responding to those actions and presenting new situations to the agent.3.1 The environment also gives rise to rewards, special numerical values that the agent tries to maximize over time. A complete specification of an environment defines a task, one instance of the reinforcement learning problem.

More specifically, the agent and environment interact at each of a sequence of discrete time steps, .3.2 At each time step , the agent receives some representation of the environment's state, , where is the set of possible states, and on that basis selects an action, , where is the set of actions available in state . One time step later, in part as a consequence of its action, the agent receives a numerical reward, , and finds itself in a new state, .3.3 Figure  3.1 diagrams the agent-environment interaction.

Figure 3.1: The agent-environment interaction in reinforcement learning.

At each time step, the agent implements a mapping from states to probabilities of selecting each possible action. This mapping is called the agent's policy and is denoted , where is the probability that if . Reinforcement learning methods specify how the agent changes its policy as a result of its experience. The agent's goal, roughly speaking, is to maximize the total amount of reward it receives over the long run.

This framework is abstract and flexible and can be applied to many different problems in many different ways. For example, the time steps need not refer to fixed intervals of real time; they can refer to arbitrary successive stages of decision-making and acting. The actions can be low-level controls, such as the voltages applied to the motors of a robot arm, or high-level decisions, such as whether or not to have lunch or to go to graduate school. Similarly, the states can take a wide variety of forms. They can be completely determined by low-level sensations, such as direct sensor readings, or they can be more high-level and abstract, such as symbolic descriptions of objects in a room. Some of what makes up a state could be based on memory of past sensations or even be entirely mental or subjective. For example, an agent could be in "the state" of not being sure where an object is, or of having just been "surprised" in some clearly defined sense. Similarly, some actions might be totally mental or computational. For example, some actions might control what an agent chooses to think about, or where it focuses its attention. In general, actions can be any decisions we want to learn how to make, and the states can be anything we can know that might be useful in making them.

In particular, the boundary between agent and environment is not often the same as the physical boundary of a robot's or animal's body. Usually, the boundary is drawn closer to the agent than that. For example, the motors and mechanical linkages of a robot and its sensing hardware should usually be considered parts of the environment rather than parts of the agent. Similarly, if we apply the framework to a person or animal, the muscles, skeleton, and sensory organs should be considered part of the environment. Rewards, too, presumably are computed inside the physical bodies of natural and artificial learning systems, but are considered external to the agent.

The general rule we follow is that anything that cannot be changed arbitrarily by the agent is considered to be outside of it and thus part of its environment. We do not assume that everything in the environment is unknown to the agent. For example, the agent often knows quite a bit about how its rewards are computed as a function of its actions and the states in which they are taken. But we always consider the reward computation to be external to the agent because it defines the task facing the agent and thus must be beyond its ability to change arbitrarily. In fact, in some cases the agent may know everything about how its environment works and still face a difficult reinforcement learning task, just as we may know exactly how a puzzle like Rubik's cube works, but still be unable to solve it. The agent-environment boundary represents the limit of the agent's absolute control, not of its knowledge.

The agent-environment boundary can be located at different places for different purposes. In a complicated robot, many different agents may be operating at once, each with its own boundary. For example, one agent may make high-level decisions which form part of the states faced by a lower-level agent that implements the high-level decisions. In practice, the agent-environment boundary is determined once one has selected particular states, actions, and rewards, and thus has identified a specific decision-making task of interest.

The reinforcement learning framework is a considerable abstraction of the problem of goal-directed learning from interaction. It proposes that whatever the details of the sensory, memory, and control apparatus, and whatever objective one is trying to achieve, any problem of learning goal-directed behavior can be reduced to three signals passing back and forth between an agent and its environment: one signal to represent the choices made by the agent (the actions), one signal to represent the basis on which the choices are made (the states), and one signal to define the agent's goal (the rewards). This framework may not be sufficient to represent all decision-learning problems usefully, but it has proved to be widely useful and applicable.

Of course, the particular states and actions vary greatly from application to application, and how they are represented can strongly affect performance. In reinforcement learning, as in other kinds of learning, such representational choices are at present more art than science. In this book we offer some advice and examples regarding good ways of representing states and actions, but our primary focus is on general principles for learning how to behave once the representations have been selected.

Example 3.1: Bioreactor   Suppose reinforcement learning is being applied to determine moment-by-moment temperatures and stirring rates for a bioreactor (a large vat of nutrients and bacteria used to produce useful chemicals). The actions in such an application might be target temperatures and target stirring rates that are passed to lower-level control systems that, in turn, directly activate heating elements and motors to attain the targets. The states are likely to be thermocouple and other sensory readings, perhaps filtered and delayed, plus symbolic inputs representing the ingredients in the vat and the target chemical. The rewards might be moment-by-moment measures of the rate at which the useful chemical is produced by the bioreactor. Notice that here each state is a list, or vector, of sensor readings and symbolic inputs, and each action is a vector consisting of a target temperature and a stirring rate. It is typical of reinforcement learning tasks to have states and actions with such structured representations. Rewards, on the other hand, are always single numbers.

Example 3.2: Pick-and-Place Robot   Consider using reinforcement learning to control the motion of a robot arm in a repetitive pick-and-place task. If we want to learn movements that are fast and smooth, the learning agent will have to control the motors directly and have low-latency information about the current positions and velocities of the mechanical linkages. The actions in this case might be the voltages applied to each motor at each joint, and the states might be the latest readings of joint angles and velocities. The reward might be for each object successfully picked up and placed. To encourage smooth movements, on each time step a small, negative reward can be given as a function of the moment-to-moment "jerkiness" of the motion.

Example 3.3: Recycling Robot   A mobile robot has the job of collecting empty soda cans in an office environment. It has sensors for detecting cans, and an arm and gripper that can pick them up and place them in an onboard bin; it runs on a rechargeable battery. The robot's control system has components for interpreting sensory information, for navigating, and for controlling the arm and gripper. High-level decisions about how to search for cans are made by a reinforcement learning agent based on the current charge level of the battery. This agent has to decide whether the robot should (1) actively search for a can for a certain period of time, (2) remain stationary and wait for someone to bring it a can, or (3) head back to its home base to recharge its battery. This decision has to be made either periodically or whenever certain events occur, such as finding an empty can. The agent therefore has three actions, and its state is determined by the state of the battery. The rewards might be zero most of the time, but then become positive when the robot secures an empty can, or large and negative if the battery runs all the way down. In this example, the reinforcement learning agent is not the entire robot. The states it monitors describe conditions within the robot itself, not conditions of the robot's external environment. The agent's environment therefore includes the rest of the robot, which might contain other complex decision-making systems, as well as the robot's external environment.

Exercise 3.1   Devise three example tasks of your own that fit into the reinforcement learning framework, identifying for each its states, actions, and rewards. Make the three examples as different from each other as possible. The framework is abstract and flexible and can be applied in many different ways. Stretch its limits in some way in at least one of your examples.

Exercise 3.2   Is the reinforcement learning framework adequate to usefully represent all goal-directed learning tasks? Can you think of any clear exceptions?

Exercise 3.3   Consider the problem of driving. You could define the actions in terms of the accelerator, steering wheel, and brake, that is, where your body meets the machine. Or you could define them farther out--say, where the rubber meets the road, considering your actions to be tire torques. Or you could define them farther in--say, where your brain meets your body, the actions being muscle twitches to control your limbs. Or you could go to a really high level and say that your actions are your choices of where to drive. What is the right level, the right place to draw the line between agent and environment? On what basis is one location of the line to be preferred over another? Is there any fundamental reason for preferring one location over another, or is it a free choice?

next up previous contents
Next: 3.2 Goals and Rewards Up: 3. The Reinforcement Learning Previous: 3. The Reinforcement Learning   Contents
Mark Lee 2005-01-04