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2.3 Softmax Action Selection

Although -greedy action selection is an effective and popular means of balancing exploration and exploitation in reinforcement learning, one drawback is that when it explores it chooses equally among all actions. This means that it is as likely to choose the worst-appearing action as it is to choose the next-to-best action. In tasks where the worst actions are very bad, this may be unsatisfactory. The obvious solution is to vary the action probabilities as a graded function of estimated value. The greedy action is still given the highest selection probability, but all the others are ranked and weighted according to their value estimates. These are called softmax action selection rules. The most common softmax method uses a Gibbs, or Boltzmann, distribution. It chooses action on the th play with probability

 (2.2)

where is a positive parameter called the temperature. High temperatures cause the actions to be all (nearly) equiprobable. Low temperatures cause a greater difference in selection probability for actions that differ in their value estimates. In the limit as , softmax action selection becomes the same as greedy action selection. Of course, the softmax effect can be produced in a large number of ways other than by a Gibbs distribution. For example, one could simply add a random number from a long-tailed distribution to each and then pick the action whose sum was largest.

Whether softmax action selection or -greedy action selection is better is unclear and may depend on the task and on human factors. Both methods have only one parameter that must be set. Most people find it easier to set the parameter with confidence; setting requires knowledge of the likely action values and of powers of . We know of no careful comparative studies of these two simple action-selection rules.

Exercise 2.2 (programming)   How does the softmax action selection method using the Gibbs distribution fare on the 10-armed testbed? Implement the method and run it at several temperatures to produce graphs similar to those in Figure  2.1. To verify your code, first implement the -greedy methods and reproduce some specific aspect of the results in Figure  2.1.

Exercise 2.3   Show that in the case of two actions, the softmax operation using the Gibbs distribution becomes the logistic, or sigmoid, function commonly used in artificial neural networks. What effect does the temperature parameter have on the function?

Next: 2.4 Evaluation Versus Instruction Up: 2. Evaluative Feedback Previous: 2.2 Action-Value Methods   Contents
Mark Lee 2005-01-04