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Information Prioritization through Empowerment in Visual Model-based RL

Homanga Bharadhwaj · Mohammad Babaeizadeh · Dumitru Erhan · Sergey Levine

Keywords: [ empowerment ] [ model-based reinforcement learning ]


Model-based reinforcement learning (RL) algorithms designed for handling complex visual observations typically learn some sort of latent state representation, either explicitly or implicitly. Standard methods of this sort do not distinguish between functionally relevant aspects of the state and irrelevant distractors, instead aiming to represent all available information equally. We propose a modified objective for model-based RL that, in combination with mutual information maximization, allows us to learn representations and dynamics for visual model-based RL without reconstruction in a way that explicitly prioritizes functionally relevant factors. The key principle behind our design is to integrate a term inspired by variational empowerment into a state-space learning model based on mutual information. This term prioritizes information that is correlated with action, thus ensuring that functionally relevant factors are captured first. Furthermore, the same empowerment term also promotes faster exploration during the RL process, especially for sparse-reward tasks where the reward signal is insufficient to drive exploration in the early stages of learning. We evaluate the approach on a suite of vision-based robot control tasks with natural video backgrounds, and show that the proposed prioritized information objective outperforms state-of-the-art model based RL approaches by an average of 20\% in terms of episodic returns at 1M environment interactions with 30\% higher sample efficiency at 100k interactions.

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