Challenges of Reinforcement Learning (2022 Guide)


Since reinforcement learning does not require access to preexisting data, it has quickly become an integral part of AI research and the pursuit of AGI (artificial general intelligence). On the contrary, it mimics human learning by making mistakes and adapting. With this importance in mind, research into and development of RL has picked up steam in recent years.


All of the major IT firms, including Facebook, Google, DeepMind, Amazon, Microsoft, and others, devote substantial resources to developing and releasing RL advances. Without direct human intervention or prior programming, a computer can learn to perform a task by making a series of decisions that maximizes a reward measure through trial and error.


Even though it’s widely used, reinforcement learning isn’t problem-free. You’ll get a better grasp on some of the most pressing problems in reinforcement learning after reading this essay.


Reinforcement Learning Challenges that are worth understanding

The following are some important reinforcement learning challenges to know and understand about.

1.    Efficacy of Samples

Learning effectively with few examples is a significant obstacle in reinforcement learning. An algorithm is said to be sample efficient if it maximizes the information available in the sample. Fundamentally, it is the training experience needed for the algorithm.


The problem is that the RL system needs a long training period before it can perform effectively. When DeepMind’s AlphaGoZero beat the Go world champion, it had to play five million games against the human champion.


Given that the state space and the action space could both be unprecedentedly huge, it is often infeasible to request a sample size beyond the fundamental limit put forth by the ambient dimension in the tabular scenario as stated in a research study by Gen Li Princeton.


Therefore, adequate low-complexity structures underlying the problem of interest must be exploited if the desire for sample efficiency is to be realized in a broad sense.

2.    Constraints on Reproducibility

Due to the lack of publicly available code and models, Facebook’s research team found it “extremely difficult, if not impossible,” to replicate DeepMind’s AlphaZero (the team succeeded ultimately).


The inner workings of neural networks are a mystery to even their designers. Their size and complexity are growing as well, thanks to more data, more processing power, and more training time. Due to these limitations, replicating RL models is extremely challenging.


The so-called reproducibility crisis is a high-stakes version of the old “that worked on my computer” coding problem, and in recent years there has been a rising effort in artificial intelligence to combat it.


Problems stem from the widespread use of idealized results achieved by using powerful GPUs in AI research, which contributes to the crisis.

3.    Real-life scenario Performance

RL agents, which are used in real-world settings, pick up skills by exploring virtual worlds. When asked how AlphaZero was trained, DeepMind explained, “Through reinforcement learning (RL), this single system learned by playing round after round of games through a repeating process of trial and error.”


The agents can make mistakes in controlled lab settings, but they aren’t given any chances to do so and learn in natural surroundings. Typically, in real-world settings, the agent doesn’t have enough room to gather enough information to draw useful conclusions from its training data. Not being able to tell the difference between the learning simulation and the real world is also included in this reality gap.


Some of the most common methods employed by researchers are training the agents on a reward and punishment mechanism, learning through precise simulations, improved algorithm design, and demonstrations, and learning by imitation. With positive reinforcement for the right choices and negative reinforcement for the wrong ones, the agent learns to maximize the right ones.

4.    Addition of offline reinforcements

Offline RL relies on a predetermined set of logged experiences with limited involvement from the environment, as opposed to the agent’s dynamic improvement of its policy in real RL. With this approach, retraining AI agents are not required for massive expansion. However, it poses the difficulty of not knowing what reward was given to the learning model if the model, which is being trained with an existing dataset, deviates from the activity of the data collection agent.


Google AI also points to the change in distribution as a problem. This occurs when the RL algorithms, to improve upon the historical data, need to learn to produce decisions that differ from the decisions taken in the dataset.


This problem prompted the researchers to create a solution: the offline RL method of cautious Q-learning (CQL), which protects “against overestimation while requiring the explicit building of a separate behavior model and without utilizing importance weights.” Additionally, researchers have discovered that online RL agents perform well in the offline scenario with suitably diversified datasets.

Final Words

We reach the final parts of the article. To summarize our discussion, we learned some important RL challenges that we face. These include sample efficacy, reproducibility issues, offline reinforcements, and real-life performance scenarios.


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