Count-Based Exploration with Neural Density Models

ICML 2017

Bellemare et al. (2016) introduced the notion of a pseudo-count to generalize count-based exploration to non-tabular reinforcement learning. This pseudo-count is derived from a density model which effectively replaces the count table used in the tabular setting. Using an exploration bonus based on this pseudo-count and a mixed Monte Carlo update applied to a DQN agent was sufficient to achieve state-of-the-art on the Atari 2600 game Montezuma's Revenge.  In this paper we consider two questions left open by their work: First, how important is the quality of the density model for exploration? Second, what role does the Monte Carlo update play in exploration? We answer the first question by demonstrating the use of PixelCNN, an advanced neural density model for images, to supply a pseudo-count. In particular, we examine the intrinsic difficulties in adapting Bellemare et al's approach when assumptions about the model are violated. The result is a more practical and general algorithm requiring no special apparatus. We combine PixelCNN pseudo-counts with different agent architectures to dramatically improve the state of the art on several hard Atari games. One surprising finding is that the mixed Monte Carlo update is a powerful facilitator of exploration in the sparsest of settings, including Montezuma's Revenge.

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