Is High Variance Unavoidable in RL? A Case Study in Continuous Control

Johan Bjorck · Carla Gomes · Kilian Weinberger

Keywords: [ reinforcement learning ] [ continuous control ]

[ Abstract ]
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Reinforcement learning (RL) experiments have notoriously high variance, and minor details can have disproportionately large effects on measured outcomes. This is problematic for creating reproducible research and also serves as an obstacle when applying RL to sensitive real-world applications. In this paper, we investigate causes for this perceived instability. To allow for an in-depth analysis, we focus on a specifically popular setup with high variance -- continuous control from pixels with an actor-critic agent. In this setting, we demonstrate that poor outlier runs which completely fail to learn are an important source of variance, but that weight initialization and initial exploration are not at fault. We show that one cause for these outliers is unstable network parametrization which leads to saturating nonlinearities. We investigate several fixes to this issue and find that simply normalizing penultimate features is surprisingly effective. For sparse tasks, we also find that partially disabling clipped double Q-learning decreases variance. By combining fixes we significantly decrease variances, lowering the average standard deviation across 21 tasks by a factor >3 for a state-of-the-art agent. This demonstrates that the perceived variance is not necessarily inherent to RL. Instead, it may be addressed via simple modifications and we argue that developing low-variance agents is an important goal for the RL community.

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