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6.2 Advantages of TD Prediction Methods

TD methods learn their estimates in part on the basis of other estimates. They learn a guess from a guess--they bootstrap. Is this a good thing to do? What advantages do TD methods have over Monte Carlo and DP methods? Developing and answering such questions will take the rest of this book and more. In this section we briefly anticipate some of the answers.

Obviously, TD methods have an advantage over DP methods in that they do not require a model of the environment, of its reward and next-state probability distributions.

The next most obvious advantage of TD methods over Monte Carlo methods is that they are naturally implemented in an on-line, fully incremental fashion. With Monte Carlo methods one must wait until the end of an episode, because only then is the return known, whereas with TD methods one need wait only one time step. Surprisingly often this turns out to be a critical consideration. Some applications have very long episodes, so that delaying all learning until an episode's end is too slow. Other applications are continuing tasks and have no episodes at all. Finally, as we noted in the previous chapter, some Monte Carlo methods must ignore or discount episodes on which experimental actions are taken, which can greatly slow learning. TD methods are much less susceptible to these problems because they learn from each transition regardless of what subsequent actions are taken.

But are TD methods sound? Certainly it is convenient to learn one guess from the next, without waiting for an actual outcome, but can we still guarantee convergence to the correct answer? Happily, the answer is yes. For any fixed policy , the TD algorithm described above has been proved to converge to , in the mean for a constant step-size parameter if it is sufficiently small, and with probability 1 if the step-size parameter decreases according to the usual stochastic approximation conditions (2.8). Most convergence proofs apply only to the table-based case of the algorithm presented above (6.2), but some also apply to the case of general linear function approximation. These results are discussed in a more general setting in the next two chapters.

If both TD and Monte Carlo methods converge asymptotically to the correct predictions, then a natural next question is "Which gets there first?" In other words, which method learns faster? Which makes the more efficient use of limited data? At the current time this is an open question in the sense that no one has been able to prove mathematically that one method converges faster than the other. In fact, it is not even clear what is the most appropriate formal way to phrase this question! In practice, however, TD methods have usually been found to converge faster than constant-$\alpha$ MC methods on stochastic tasks, as illustrated in the following example.

Example 6.2: Random Walk   In this example we empirically compare the prediction abilities of TD(0) and constant-$\alpha$ MC applied to the small Markov process shown in Figure  6.5. All episodes start in the center state, , and proceed either left or right by one state on each step, with equal probability. This behavior is presumably due to the combined effect of a fixed policy and an environment's state-transition probabilities, but we do not care which; we are concerned only with predicting returns however they are generated. Episodes terminate either on the extreme left or the extreme right. When an episode terminates on the right a reward of occurs; all other rewards are zero. For example, a typical walk might consist of the following state-and-reward sequence: . Because this task is undiscounted and episodic, the true value of each state is the probability of terminating on the right if starting from that state. Thus, the true value of the center state is . The true values of all the states, through , are , and . Figure  6.6 shows the values learned by TD(0) approaching the true values as more episodes are experienced. Averaging over many episode sequences, Figure  6.7 shows the average error in the predictions found by TD(0) and constant-$\alpha$ MC, for a variety of values of $\alpha$, as a function of number of episodes. In all cases the approximate value function was initialized to the intermediate value , for all . The TD method is consistently better than the MC method on this task over this number of episodes.

Figure 6.5: A small Markov process for generating random walks.

Figure 6.6: Values learned by TD(0) after various numbers of episodes. The final estimate is about as close as the estimates ever get to the true values. With a constant step-size parameter ( in this example), the values fluctuate indefinitely in response to the outcomes of the most recent episodes.

Figure 6.7: Learning curves for TD(0) and constant-$\alpha$ MC methods, for various values of $\alpha$, on the prediction problem for the random walk. The performance measure shown is the root mean-squared (RMS) error between the value function learned and the true value function, averaged over the five states. These data are averages over 100 different sequences of episodes.

Exercise 6.1   This is an exercise to help develop your intuition about why TD methods are often more efficient than Monte Carlo methods. Consider the driving home example and how it is addressed by TD and Monte Carlo methods. Can you imagine a scenario in which a TD update would be better on average than an Monte Carlo update? Give an example scenario--a description of past experience and a current state--in which you would expect the TD update to be better. Here's a hint: Suppose you have lots of experience driving home from work. Then you move to a new building and a new parking lot (but you still enter the highway at the same place). Now you are starting to learn predictions for the new building. Can you see why TD updates are likely to be much better, at least initially, in this case? Might the same sort of thing happen in the original task?

Exercise 6.2   From Figure  6.6, it appears that the first episode results in a change in only . What does this tell you about what happened on the first episode? Why was only the estimate for this one state changed? By exactly how much was it changed?

Exercise 6.3   Do you think that by choosing the step-size parameter, , differently, either algorithm could have done significantly better than shown in Figure  6.7? Why or why not?

Exercise 6.4   In Figure  6.7, the RMS error of the TD method seems to go down and then up again, particularly at high $\alpha$'s. What could have caused this? Do you think this always occurs, or might it be a function of how the approximate value function was initialized?

Exercise 6.5   Above we stated that the true values for the random walk task are , and , for states through . Describe at least two different ways that these could have been computed. Which would you guess we actually used? Why?

next up previous contents
Next: 6.3 Optimality of TD(0) Up: 6. Temporal-Difference Learning Previous: 6.1 TD Prediction   Contents
Mark Lee 2005-01-04