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8.3 Linear Methods

One of the most important special cases of gradient-descent function approximation is that in which the approximate function, , is a linear function of the parameter vector, . Corresponding to every state , there is a column vector of features , with the same number of components as . The features may be constructed from the states in many different ways; we cover a few possibilities below. However the features are constructed, the approximate state-value function is given by


In this case the approximate value function is said to be linear in the parameters, or simply linear.

It is natural to use gradient-descent updates with linear function approximation. The gradient of the approximate value function with respect to in this case is

Thus, the general gradient-descent update (8.3) reduces to a particularly simple form in the linear case. In addition, in the linear case there is only one optimum (or, in degenerate cases, one set of equally good optima). Thus, any method guaranteed to converge to or near a local optimum is automatically guaranteed to converge to or near the global optimum. Because it is simple in these ways, the linear, gradient-descent case is one of the most favorable for mathematical analysis. Almost all useful convergence results for learning systems of all kinds are for linear (or simpler) function approximation methods.

In particular, the gradient-descent TD($\lambda $) algorithm discussed in the previous section (Figure  8.1) has been proved to converge in the linear case if the step-size parameter is reduced over time according to the usual conditions (2.7). Convergence is not to the minimum-error parameter vector, , but to a nearby parameter vector, , whose error is bounded according to


That is, the asymptotic error is no more than times the smallest possible error. As $\lambda $ approaches 1, the bound approaches the minimum error. An analogous bound applies to other on-policy bootstrapping methods. For example, linear gradient-descent DP backups (8.3), with the on-policy distribution, will converge to the same result as TD(0). Technically, this bound applies only to discounted continuing tasks, but a related result presumably holds for episodic tasks. There are also a few technical conditions on the rewards, features, and decrease in the step-size parameter, which we are omitting here. The full details can be found in the original paper (Tsitsiklis and Van Roy, 1997a).

Critical to the above result is that states are backed up according to the on-policy distribution. For other backup distributions, bootstrapping methods using function approximation may actually diverge to infinity. Examples of this and a discussion of possible solution methods are given in Section 8.5

Beyond these theoretical results, linear learning methods are also of interest because in practice they can be very efficient in terms of both data and computation. Whether or not this is so depends critically on how the states are represented in terms of the features. Choosing features appropriate to the task is an important way of adding prior domain knowledge to reinforcement learning systems. Intuitively, the features should correspond to the natural features of the task, those along which generalization is most appropriate. If we are valuing geometric objects, for example, we might want to have features for each possible shape, color, size, or function. If we are valuing states of a mobile robot, then we might want to have features for locations, degrees of remaining battery power, recent sonar readings, and so on.

In general, we also need features for combinations of these natural qualities. This is because the linear form prohibits the representation of interactions between features, such as the presence of feature being good only in the absence of feature . For example, in the pole-balancing task (Example 3.4), a high angular velocity may be either good or bad depending on the angular position. If the angle is high, then high angular velocity means an imminent danger of falling, a bad state, whereas if the angle is low, then high angular velocity means the pole is righting itself, a good state. In cases with such interactions one needs to introduce features for conjunctions of feature values when using linear function approximation methods. We next consider some general ways of doing this.

Exercise 8.5   How could we reproduce the tabular case within the linear framework?

Exercise 8.6   How could we reproduce the state aggregation case (see Exercise 8.4) within the linear framework?

8.3.1 Coarse Coding

Consider a task in which the state set is continuous and two-dimensional. A state in this case is a point in 2-space, a vector with two real components. One kind of feature for this case is those corresponding to circles in state space, as shown in Figure  8.2. If the state is inside a circle, then the corresponding feature has the value and is said to be present; otherwise the feature is and is said to be absent. This kind of 1-0-valued feature is called a binary feature. Given a state, which binary features are present indicate within which circles the state lies, and thus coarsely code for its location. Representing a state with features that overlap in this way (although they need not be circles or binary) is known as coarse coding.

Figure 8.2: Coarse coding. Generalization from state to state depends on the number of their features whose receptive fields (in this case, circles) overlap. These states have one feature in common, so there will be slight generalization between them.

Assuming linear gradient-descent function approximation, consider the effect of the size and density of the circles. Corresponding to each circle is a single parameter (a component of ) that is affected by learning. If we train at one point (state), , then the parameters of all circles intersecting will be affected. Thus, by (8.8), the approximate value function will be affected at all points within the union of the circles, with a greater effect the more circles a point has "in common" with , as shown in Figure  8.2. If the circles are small, then the generalization will be over a short distance, as in Figure  8.3a, whereas if they are large, it will be over a large distance, as in Figure  8.3b. Moreover, the shape of the features will determine the nature of the generalization. For example, if they are not strictly circular, but are elongated in one direction, then generalization will be similarly affected, as in Figure  8.3c.

Figure 8.3: Generalization in linear function approximation methods is determined by the sizes and shapes of the features' receptive fields. All three of these cases have roughly the same number and density of features.

Features with large receptive fields give broad generalization, but might also seem to limit the learned function to a coarse approximation, unable to make discriminations much finer than the width of the receptive fields. Happily, this is not the case. Initial generalization from one point to another is indeed controlled by the size and shape of the receptive fields, but acuity, the finest discrimination ultimately possible, is controlled more by the total number of features.

Example 8.1: Coarseness of Coarse Coding   This example illustrates the effect on learning of the size of the receptive fields in coarse coding. Linear function approximation based on coarse coding and (8.3) was used to learn a one-dimensional square-wave function (shown at the top of Figure  8.4). The values of this function were used as the targets, . With just one dimension, the receptive fields were intervals rather than circles. Learning was repeated with three different sizes of the intervals: narrow, medium, and broad, as shown at the bottom of the figure. All three cases had the same density of features, about 50 over the extent of the function being learned. Training examples were generated uniformly at random over this extent. The step-size parameter was , where is the number of features that were present at one time. Figure  8.4 shows the functions learned in all three cases over the course of learning. Note that the width of the features had a strong effect early in learning. With broad features, the generalization tended to be broad; with narrow features, only the close neighbors of each trained point were changed, causing the function learned to be more bumpy. However, the final function learned was affected only slightly by the width of the features. Receptive field shape tends to have a strong effect on generalization but little effect on asymptotic solution quality.

Figure 8.4: Example of feature width's strong effect on initial generalization (first row) and weak effect on asymptotic accuracy (last row).

8.3.2 Tile Coding

Tile coding is a form of coarse coding that is particularly well suited for use on sequential digital computers and for efficient on-line learning. In tile coding the receptive fields of the features are grouped into exhaustive partitions of the input space. Each such partition is called a tiling, and each element of the partition is called a tile. Each tile is the receptive field for one binary feature.

An immediate advantage of tile coding is that the overall number of features that are present at one time is strictly controlled and independent of the input state. Exactly one feature is present in each tiling, so the total number of features present is always the same as the number of tilings. This allows the step-size parameter, $\alpha$, to be set in an easy, intuitive way. For example, choosing , where is the number of tilings, results in exact one-trial learning. If the example is received, then whatever the prior value, , the new value will be . Usually one wishes to change more slowly than this, to allow for generalization and stochastic variation in target outputs. For example, one might choose , in which case one would move one-tenth of the way to the target in one update.

Because tile coding uses exclusively binary (0-1-valued) features, the weighted sum making up the approximate value function (8.8) is almost trivial to compute. Rather than performing multiplications and additions, one simply computes the indices of the present features and then adds up the corresponding components of the parameter vector. The eligibility trace computation (8.7) is also simplified because the components of the gradient, , are also usually , and otherwise .

The computation of the indices of the present features is particularly easy if gridlike tilings are used. The ideas and techniques here are best illustrated by examples. Suppose we address a task with two continuous state variables. Then the simplest way to tile the space is with a uniform two-dimensional grid:

Given the and coordinates of a point in the space, it is computationally easy to determine the index of the tile it is in. When multiple tilings are used, each is offset by a different amount, so that each cuts the space in a different way. In the example shown in Figure  8.5, an extra row and an extra column of tiles have been added to the grid so that no points are left uncovered. The two tiles highlighted are those that are present in the state indicated by the . The different tilings may be offset by random amounts, or by cleverly designed deterministic strategies (simply offsetting each dimension by the same increment is known not to be a good idea). The effects on generalization and asymptotic accuracy illustrated in Figures  8.3 and 8.4 apply here as well. The width and shape of the tiles should be chosen to match the width of generalization that one expects to be appropriate. The number of tilings should be chosen to influence the density of tiles. The denser the tiling, the finer and more accurately the desired function can be approximated, but the greater the computational costs.

Figure 8.5: Multiple, overlapping gridtilings.

It is important to note that the tilings can be arbitrary and need not be uniform grids. Not only can the tiles be strangely shaped, as in Figure  8.6a, but they can be shaped and distributed to give particular kinds of generalization. For example, the stripe tiling in Figure  8.6b will promote generalization along the vertical dimension and discrimination along the horizontal dimension, particularly on the left. The diagonal stripe tiling in Figure  8.6c will promote generalization along one diagonal. In higher dimensions, axis-aligned stripes correspond to ignoring some of the dimensions in some of the tilings, that is, to hyperplanar slices.

Figure 8.6: Tilings.

Another important trick for reducing memory requirements is hashing--a consistent pseudo-random collapsing of a large tiling into a much smaller set of tiles. Hashing produces tiles consisting of noncontiguous, disjoint regions randomly spread throughout the state space, but that still form an exhaustive tiling. For example, one tile might consist of the four subtiles shown below:

Through hashing, memory requirements are often reduced by large factors with little loss of performance. This is possible because high resolution is needed in only a small fraction of the state space. Hashing frees us from the curse of dimensionality in the sense that memory requirements need not be exponential in the number of dimensions, but need merely match the real demands of the task. Good public-domain implementations of tile coding, including hashing, are widely available.

Exercise 8.7   Suppose we believe that one of two state dimensions is more likely to have an effect on the value function than is the other, that generalization should be primarily across this dimension rather than along it. What kind of tilings could be used to take advantage of this prior knowledge?

8.3.3 Radial Basis Functions

Radial basis functions (RBFs) are the natural generalization of coarse coding to continuous-valued features. Rather than each feature being either 0 or 1, it can be anything in the interval , reflecting various degrees to which the feature is present. A typical RBF feature, , has a Gaussian (bell-shaped) response dependent only on the distance between the state, , and the feature's prototypical or center state, , and relative to the feature's width, :

The norm or distance metric of course can be chosen in whatever way seems most appropriate to the states and task at hand. Figure  8.7 shows a 1-dimensional example with a Euclidean distance metric.

Figure 8.7: One-dimensional radial basis functions.

An RBF network is a linear function approximator using RBFs for its features. Learning is defined by equations (8.3) and (8.8), exactly as in other linear function approximators. The primary advantage of RBFs over binary features is that they produce approximate functions that vary smoothly and are differentiable. In addition, some learning methods for RBF networks change the centers and widths of the features as well. Such nonlinear methods may be able to fit the target function much more precisely. The downside to RBF networks, and to nonlinear RBF networks especially, is greater computational complexity and, often, more manual tuning before learning is robust and efficient.

8.3.4 Kanerva Coding

On tasks with very high dimensionality, say hundreds of dimensions, tile coding and RBF networks become impractical. If we take either method at face value, its computational complexity increases exponentially with the number of dimensions. There are a number of tricks that can reduce this growth (such as hashing), but even these become impractical after a few tens of dimensions.

On the other hand, some of the general ideas underlying these methods can be practical for high-dimensional tasks. In particular, the idea of representing states by a list of the features present and then mapping those features linearly to an approximation may scale well to large tasks. The key is to keep the number of features from scaling explosively. Is there any reason to think this might be possible?

First we need to establish some realistic expectations. Roughly speaking, a function approximator of a given complexity can only accurately approximate target functions of comparable complexity. But as dimensionality increases, the size of the state space inherently increases exponentially. It is reasonable to assume that in the worst case the complexity of the target function scales like the size of the state space. Thus, if we focus the worst case, then there is no solution, no way to get good approximations for high-dimensional tasks without using resources exponential in the dimension.

A more useful way to think about the problem is to focus on the complexity of the target function as separate and distinct from the size and dimensionality of the state space. The size of the state space may give an upper bound on complexity, but short of that high bound, complexity and dimension can be unrelated. For example, one might have a 1000-dimensional task where only one of the dimensions happens to matter. Given a certain level of complexity, we then seek to be able to accurately approximate any target function of that complexity or less. As the target level of complexity increases, we would like to get by with a proportionate increase in computational resources.

From this point of view, the real source of the problem is the complexity of the target function, or of a reasonable approximation of it, not the dimensionality of the state space. Thus, adding dimensions, such as new sensors or new features, to a task should be almost without consequence if the complexity of the needed approximations remains the same. The new dimensions may even make things easier if the target function can be simply expressed in terms of them. Unfortunately, methods like tile coding and RBF coding do not work this way. Their complexity increases exponentially with dimensionality even if the complexity of the target function does not. For these methods, dimensionality itself is still a problem. We need methods whose complexity is unaffected by dimensionality per se, methods that are limited only by, and scale well with, the complexity of what they approximate.

One simple approach that meets these criteria, which we call Kanerva coding, is to choose binary features that correspond to particular prototype states. For definiteness, let us say that the prototypes are randomly selected from the entire state space. The receptive field of such a feature is all states sufficiently close to the prototype. Kanerva coding uses a different kind of distance metric than in is used in tile coding and RBFs. For definiteness, consider a binary state space and the hamming distance, the number of bits at which two states differ. States are considered similar if they agree on enough dimensions, even if they are totally different on others.

The strength of Kanerva coding is that the complexity of the functions that can be learned depends entirely on the number of features, which bears no necessary relationship to the dimensionality of the task. The number of features can be more or less than the number of dimensions. Only in the worst case must it be exponential in the number of dimensions. Dimensionality itself is thus no longer a problem. Complex functions are still a problem, as they have to be. To handle more complex tasks, a Kanerva coding approach simply needs more features. There is not a great deal of experience with such systems, but what there is suggests that their abilities increase in proportion to their computational resources. This is an area of current research, and significant improvements in existing methods can still easily be found.

next up previous contents
Next: 8.4 Control with Function Up: 8. Generalization and Function Previous: 8.2 Gradient-Descent Methods   Contents
Mark Lee 2005-01-04