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Accelerating reinforcement learning with a Directional-Gaussian-Smoothing evolution strategy

Notice: This manuscript has been authored by UT-Battelle, LLC, under contract DE-AC05-00OR22725 with the US Department of Energy (DOE). The US government retains and the publisher, by accepting the article for publication, acknowledges that the US government retains a nonexclusive, paid-up, irrevocable, worldwide license to publish or reproduce the published form of this manuscript, or allow others to do so, for US government purposes. DOE will provide public access to these results of federally sponsored research in accordance with the DOE Public Access Plan (http://energy.gov/downloads/doe-public-access-plan).

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  • The objective of reinforcement learning (RL) is to find an optimal strategy for solving a dynamical control problem. Evolution strategy (ES) has been shown great promise in many challenging reinforcement learning (RL) tasks, where the underlying dynamical system is only accessible as a black box such that adjoint methods cannot be used. However, existing ES methods have two limitations that hinder its applicability in RL. First, most existing methods rely on Monte Carlo based gradient estimators to generate search directions. Due to low accuracy of Monte Carlo estimators, the RL training suffers from slow convergence and requires more iterations to reach the optimal solution. Second, the landscape of the reward function can be deceptive and may contain many local maxima, causing ES algorithms to prematurely converge and be unable to explore other parts of the parameter space with potentially greater rewards. In this work, we employ a Directional Gaussian Smoothing Evolutionary Strategy (DGS-ES) to accelerate RL training, which is well-suited to address these two challenges with its ability to (i) provide gradient estimates with high accuracy, and (ii) find nonlocal search direction which lays stress on large-scale variation of the reward function and disregards local fluctuation. Through several benchmark RL tasks demonstrated herein, we show that the DGS-ES method is highly scalable, possesses superior wall-clock time, and achieves competitive reward scores to other popular policy gradient and ES approaches.

    Mathematics Subject Classification: Primary: 37M05, 93E35; Secondary: 60J25.


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  • Figure 1.  Illustration of DGS gradient direction and local gradient direction at 50 random locations on the surface of the Ackley in 2D. (Left) The standard deviation $ \boldsymbol \sigma $ is set to 0.01, such that the DGS gradient align with the local gradient at most locations. (Right) The standard deviation $ \boldsymbol \sigma $ is set to 1.0, such that most DGS gradient points to the global minimum at $ (0,0) $

    Figure 2.  Illustration of the dimension dependence of the convergence rate of the DGS-ES method. The convergence rate, i.e., the number of iterations to converge, is independent of the dimension for convex functions, e.g., Sphere function, and such property empirically carries over to the non-convex Lévy and Rastrigin functions

    Figure 3.  Comparison of different blackbox optimization methods on four 2000-dimensional benchmark functions

    Figure 4.  Comparison between the DGS-ES and two baselines, i.e., ES and ASEBO, for solving the three problems from OpenAI Gym. The colored curves are the average return over 5 repeated runs with different random seeds, and the corresponding shade represents the interval between the maximum and minimum return

    Figure 5.  Comparison between the DGS-ES method and the baselines, i.e., ES, ASEBO, PPO, TRPO, DDPG and TD3, for solving the three problems from the PyBullet library. The colored curves are the average return over 20 runs with different random seeds, and the corresponding shade represents the interval between the maximal and minimal rewards

    Figure 6.  Illustration of the effect of the radius $ \boldsymbol \sigma $ of $ \widetilde{\nabla}^M_{\boldsymbol \sigma, \boldsymbol \Xi}[J](\boldsymbol \theta) $ on the performance of the DGS-ES method in solving the Reacher-v0 problem

    Figure 7.  Illustration and design optimization of hierarchical stiffened shell structures in aerospace engineering, e.g. rocket

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