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Demystifying Reinforcement Learning : Teaching Machines to Learn by Themselves
Explained With A Real World Example
Reinforcement Learning (RL) is a branch of machine learning that teaches computer agents how to achieve a goal in a complex, uncertain environment. In Reinforcement Learning, the agent learns from interactions with the environment, without being explicitly programmed. The agent explores the environment, takes actions, and observes the results to determine the optimal behavior.
The Basics: How RL Works
In RL, the agent interacts with the environment in discrete time steps. For each time step, the agent receives some representation of the environment's state, takes an action, and receives a reward based on the result. The agent's goal is to maximize the total reward. The agent must balance exploration (trying new actions) and exploitation (taking the actions that are known to yield high rewards).
Example : Jenny was a little girl who loved cookies. She wanted to learn the best way to convince her parents to give her cookies before dinner time. Her parents would only allow her to have one cookie per day, so Jenny had to learn through trial-and-error to get the maximum number of cookies.
Jenny was the reinforcement learning agent. Her goal was to maximize the number of cookies she received each day.
The environment was her kitchen and living room. She could take actions like giving her parents puppy dog eyes, pouting nicely, offering to do chores, or bargaining. The outcome of each action was that her parents would either give her zero, one, or two cookies as a reward.
Jenny started out just taking random actions to get cookies, without really knowing the optimal strategy. Sometimes she got one cookie, sometimes zero. She began associating the reward (number of cookies) with each action she took so she could learn.
Over many "episodes" (days) of trying different approaches, Jenny's policy (way of getting cookies) started to improve. The actions that got zero cookies fell by the wayside, while the approaches that earned one or two cookies were emphasized.
Eventually, Jenny figured out the optimum policy - giving her parents puppy dog eyes and offering to do two chores always earned her two cookies as a reward. She had "mastered" getting the maximum treat from her parents through trial and error using reinforcement learning!
Reinforcement Learning Algorithms
Here are the main reinforcement learning algorithms described with examples that illustrate how they work:
Value Iteration: An algorithm that iteratively estimates the value of each state by calculating the maximum expected reward from that state. It converges on the optimal policy.
Example: Jenny estimated the value of being in the kitchen as the most cookies she could get from her parents by taking different actions from that state (puppy dog eyes, chores, bargaining, etc.). Her values improved over time until they matched the real cookie counts perfectly for each approach, giving her the optimal policy to follow.
Policy Iteration: An algorithm that alternates between evaluating a policy and improving it using a greedy search. It converges on the optimal policy like value iteration.
Example: Jenny started with a random policy of actions for getting cookies. She received some cookies by following it, updated her policy to the approaches with highest values, received more cookies, repeated until her policy became optimal. Her policy converged through trial-and-error!
Monte Carlo Methods: Algorithms that use sample averages from experience to estimate values and policies. They do not require a model of the environment dynamics and can work with finite or infinite state/action spaces. Examples include Monte Carlo valuation and control.
Example: Jenny estimated the cookie value of each approach by averaging the actual cookies she got from taking that approach over many days. Her values converged to the truths without any initial guesses, just experience! Her "cookie senses" tuned in.
Temporal Difference Learning: A family of algorithms that use sample averages to update estimates based on new experiences at each time step. Includes algorithms like SARSA, R learning, and Q-learning. Q-learning is one of the most popular reinforcement learning algorithms.
A Q-value is an estimate of how good a particular action is from a given state. It represents the expected reward of taking an action in that state.
Here are the Q-values in Jenny's reinforcement learning process: Q(action, state) represents the value (expected reward) of taking action in a given state. For Jenny, this would map to:
Q(give puppy dog eyes, kitchen)
Q(pout nicely, kitchen)
Q(offer to do chores, kitchen)
The initial Q-values would all start out roughly equal since Jenny hasn't learned which actions are most rewarding yet.
As Jenny takes actions and receives rewards (cookies), she updates the Q-values for those state-action pairs. Actions that get her more cookies will have their Q-values increase, while actions that get zero cookies will have their Q-values decrease.
Over time, the best actions - those that yield the most cookies - will have the highest Q-values. This allows Jenny to determine an "optimal policy" of which actions to take from any given state to maximize her reward.
In Jenny's case, the optimal policy turned out to be:
From kitchen - give puppy dog eyes and offer to do two chores
Q(give puppy dog eyes, kitchen) + Q(offer to do chores, kitchen) > all other Q-values
So in summary, the Q-values represent Jenny's estimate of how rewarding each action is from a given state, based on her experience. They allow her to discover the most optimal actions through reinforcement learning.
Applications: Real-world examples
Here are some real-world applications of Deep Reinforcement Learning:
Autonomous driving - Self-driving cars use deep reinforcement learning to map out surroundings, detect objects, plan routes, and control steering and acceleration. They learn optimal policies through lots of experience.
Robotics - Robots arms and drones use reinforcement learning to learn complex manipulation and locomotion skills without being explicitly programmed. They interact with environments to maximize rewards like reaching targets or avoiding obstacles.
Recommendation systems - Systems like Amazon and Netflix use reinforcement learning to determine the best sequence of product or video recommendations for each user to maximize the likelihood of a purchase or view.
Game playing - Reinforcement learning algorithms have mastered complex games like Go, Atari games, and Dota 2 by playing millions of virtual simulations and learning optimal strategies.
Protein folding - Deep reinforcement learning has been used to predict protein structures which is extremely difficult due to the many possible folding configurations. Predicting structures can aid in drug discovery.
Industrial control - Deep RL has been used for tasks like chemical process control, energy management systems, and optimizing manufacturing processes.
Healthcare - Deep RL shows promise for applications like optimizing treatment plans, assisting with medical diagnoses, and improving resource allocation.
Reinforcement learning is a powerful machine learning technique that shows a lot of potential to solve complex real-world tasks. Reinforcement learning agents are able to achieve superhuman performance at tasks through continuous interaction with their environment, gathering experiences and learning optimized policies on their own. The use of deep neural networks as function approximators allows reinforcement learning to scale up to complex, high-dimensional environments like those encountered in the real world.
However, reinforcement learning also faces many challenges. Agents often require a huge number of training episodes to learn optimal policies, which can be time-consuming and resource intensive. Reinforcement learning agents also struggle with generalizing to new, unseen situations. As a result, reinforcement learning systems still require a significant amount of guidance and tuning by human experts to achieve good performance.
Nonetheless, the ability of reinforcement learning agents to improve continuously through experience indicates the technology is here to stay. As deep reinforcement learning techniques advance, we can expect to see more impactful applications in domains like robotics, industrial control, autonomous systems, and healthcare. Deep reinforcement learning has the potential to revolutionize how machines learn and adapt, bringing us closer to true artificial intelligence.
In summary, reinforcement learning is an exciting research field that, with continued progress, has the potential to dramatically improve the capabilities of machine learning systems and create more intelligent applications that empower humans.
Reinforcement learning holds promise for creating more intelligent machines through experience.