Learning to Predict Without Looking Ahead: World Models Without Forward Prediction -
Reinforcement Learning is often broadly separated into two categories of approaches: model-free and model-based. In the former category, networks simply take observations and input and produce predicted best-actions (or predicted values of available actions) as output. In order to perform well, the model obviously needs to gain an understanding of how its actions influence the world, but it doesn't explicitly make predictions about what the state of the world will be after an action is taken. In model-based approaches, the agent explicitly builds a dynamics model, or a model in which it takes in (past state, action) and predicts next state. In theory, learning such a model can lead to both interpretability (because you can "see" what the model thinks the world is like) and robustness to different reward functions (because you're learning about the world in a way not explicitly tied up with the reward). This paper proposes an interesting melding of these two paradigms, where an agent learns a model of the world as part of an end-to-end policy learning. This works through something the authors call "observational dropout": the internal model predicts the next state of the world given the prior one and the action, and then with some probability, the state of the world that both the policy and the next iteration of the dynamics model sees is replaced with the model's prediction. This incentivizes the network to learn an effective dynamics model, because the farther the predictions of the model are from the true state of the world, the worse the performance of the learned policy will be on the iterations where the only observation it can see is the predicted one. So, this architecture is model-free in the sense that the gradient used to train the system is based on applying policy gradients to the reward, but model-based in the sense that it does have an internal world representation. The authors find that, at a simple task, Swing Up Cartpole, very low probabilities of seeing the true world (and thus very high probabilities of the policy only seeing the dynamics model output) lead to world models good enough that a policy trained only on trajectories sampled from that model can perform relatively well. This suggests that at higher probabilities of the true world, there was less value in the dynamics model being accurate, and consequently less training signal for it. (Of course, policies that often could only see the predicted world performed worse during their original training iteration compared to policies that could see the real world more frequently). On a more complex task of CarRacing, the authors looked at how well a policy trained using the representations of the world model as input could perform, to examine whether it was learning useful things about the world. They found an interesting trade-off, where at high probabilities (like before) the dynamics model had little incentive to be good, but at low probabilities it didn't have enough contact with the real dynamics of the world to learn a sensible policy.