Eligibility traces in conjunction with TD errors provide an efficient, incremental way of shifting and choosing between Monte Carlo and TD methods. Traces can be used without TD errors to achieve a similar effect, but only awkwardly. A method such as TD() enables this to be done from partial experiences and with little memory and little nonmeaningful variation in predictions.
As we mentioned in Chapter 5, Monte Carlo methods may have advantages in non-Markov tasks because they do not bootstrap. Because eligibility traces make TD methods more like Monte Carlo methods, they also can have advantages in these cases. If one wants to use TD methods because of their other advantages, but the task is at least partially non-Markov, then the use of an eligibility trace method is indicated. Eligibility traces are the first line of defense against both long-delayed rewards and non-Markov tasks.
By adjusting , we can place eligibility trace methods anywhere along a continuum from Monte Carlo to one-step TD methods. Where shall we place them? We do not yet have a good theoretical answer to this question, but a clear empirical answer appears to be emerging. On tasks with many steps per episode, or many steps within the half-life of discounting, it appears significantly better to use eligibility traces than not to (e.g., see Figure 8.10). On the other hand, if the traces are so long as to produce a pure Monte Carlo method, or nearly so, then performance degrades sharply. An intermediate mixture appears to be the best choice. Eligibility traces should be used to bring us toward Monte Carlo methods, but not all the way there. In the future it may be possible to vary the trade-off between TD and Monte Carlo methods more finely by using variable , but at present it is not clear how this can be done reliably and usefully.
Methods using eligibility traces require more computation than one-step methods, but in return they offer significantly faster learning, particularly when rewards are delayed by many steps. Thus it often makes sense to use eligibility traces when data are scarce and cannot be repeatedly processed, as is often the case in on-line applications. On the other hand, in off-line applications in which data can be generated cheaply, perhaps from an inexpensive simulation, then it often does not pay to use eligibility traces. In these cases the objective is not to get more out of a limited amount of data, but simply to process as much data as possible as quickly as possible. In these cases the speedup per datum due to traces is typically not worth their computational cost, and one-step methods are favored.