next up previous contents
Next: 3.7 Value Functions Up: 3. The Reinforcement Learning Previous: 3.5 The Markov Property   Contents

3.6 Markov Decision Processes

A reinforcement learning task that satisfies the Markov property is called a Markov decision process, or MDP. If the state and action spaces are finite, then it is called a finite Markov decision process (finite MDP). Finite MDPs are particularly important to the theory of reinforcement learning. We treat them extensively throughout this book; they are all you need to understand 90% of modern reinforcement learning.

A particular finite MDP is defined by its state and action sets and by the one-step dynamics of the environment. Given any state and action, and , the probability of each possible next state, , is


These quantities are called transition probabilities. Similarly, given any current state and action, and , together with any next state, , the expected value of the next reward is


These quantities, and , completely specify the most important aspects of the dynamics of a finite MDP (only information about the distribution of rewards around the expected value is lost). Most of the theory we present in the rest of this book implicitly assumes the environment is a finite MDP.

Example 3.7: Recycling Robot MDP   The recycling robot (Example 3.3) can be turned into a simple example of an MDP by simplifying it and providing some more details. (Our aim is to produce a simple example, not a particularly realistic one.) Recall that the agent makes a decision at times determined by external events (or by other parts of the robot's control system). At each such time the robot decides whether it should (1) actively search for a can, (2) remain stationary and wait for someone to bring it a can, or (3) go back to home base to recharge its battery. Suppose the environment works as follows. The best way to find cans is to actively search for them, but this runs down the robot's battery, whereas waiting does not. Whenever the robot is searching, the possibility exists that its battery will become depleted. In this case the robot must shut down and wait to be rescued (producing a low reward).

The agent makes its decisions solely as a function of the energy level of the battery. It can distinguish two levels, high and low, so that the state set is . Let us call the possible decisions--the agent's actions--wait, search, and recharge. When the energy level is high, recharging would always be foolish, so we do not include it in the action set for this state. The agent's action sets are

If the energy level is high, then a period of active search can always be completed without risk of depleting the battery. A period of searching that begins with a high energy level leaves the energy level high with probability and reduces it to low with probability . On the other hand, a period of searching undertaken when the energy level is low leaves it low with probability and depletes the battery with probability . In the latter case, the robot must be rescued, and the battery is then recharged back to high. Each can collected by the robot counts as a unit reward, whereas a reward of results whenever the robot has to be rescued. Let and , with , respectively denote the expected number of cans the robot will collect (and hence the expected reward) while searching and while waiting. Finally, to keep things simple, suppose that no cans can be collected during a run home for recharging, and that no cans can be collected on a step in which the battery is depleted. This system is then a finite MDP, and we can write down the transition probabilities and the expected rewards, as in Table 3.1.

Table 3.1: Transition probabilities and expected rewards for the finite MDP of the recycling robot example. There is a row for each possible combination of current state, , next state, , and action possible in the current state, .
high high search
high low search
low high search
low low search
high high wait
high low wait
low high wait
low low wait
low high recharge
low low recharge .

A transition graph is a useful way to summarize the dynamics of a finite MDP. Figure  3.3 shows the transition graph for the recycling robot example. There are two kinds of nodes: state nodes and action nodes. There is a state node for each possible state (a large open circle labeled by the name of the state), and an action node for each state-action pair (a small solid circle labeled by the name of the action and connected by a line to the state node). Starting in state and taking action moves you along the line from state node to action node . Then the environment responds with a transition to the next state's node via one of the arrows leaving action node . Each arrow corresponds to a triple , where is the next state, and we label the arrow with the transition probability, , and the expected reward for that transition, . Note that the transition probabilities labeling the arrows leaving an action node always sum to 1.

Figure 3.3: Transition graph for the recycling robot example.

Exercise 3.7   Assuming a finite MDP with a finite number of reward values, write an equation for the transition probabilities and the expected rewards in terms of the joint conditional distribution in (3.5).

next up previous contents
Next: 3.7 Value Functions Up: 3. The Reinforcement Learning Previous: 3.5 The Markov Property   Contents
Mark Lee 2005-01-04