An EPIC way to evaluate reward functions

Cross-posted from the DeepMind Safety blog.

In many reinforcement learning problems the objective is too complex to be specified procedurally, and a reward function must instead be learned from user data. However, how can you tell if a learned reward function actually captures user preferences? Our method, Equivalent-Policy Invariant Comparison (EPIC), allows one to evaluate a reward function by computing how similar it is to other reward functions. EPIC can be used to benchmark reward learning algorithms by comparing learned reward functions to a ground-truth reward. It can also be used to validate learned reward functions prior to deployment, by comparing them against reward functions learned via different techniques or data sources.

Figure 1: EPIC compares reward functions $R_a$ and $R_b$ by first mapping them to canonical representatives and then computing the Pearson distance between the canonical representatives on a coverage distribution $mathcal{D}$. Canonicalization removes the effect of potential shaping, and Pearson distance is invariant to positive affine transformations.

EPIC is up to 1000 times faster than alternative evaluation methods, and requires little to no hyperparameter tuning. Moreover, we show both theoretically and empirically that reward functions judged as similar by EPIC induce policies with similar returns, even in unseen environments.

Specifying a reward function can be one of the trickiest parts of applying RL to a problem. Even seemingly simple robotics tasks such as peg insertion can require first training an image classifier to use as a reward signal. Tasks with a more nebulous objective like article summarization require collecting large amounts of human feedback in order to learn a reward function. The difficulty of reward function specification will only continue to grow as RL is increasingly applied to complex and user-facing applications such as recommender systems, chatbots and autonomous vehicles.

Figure 2: There exist a variety of techniques to specify a reward function. EPIC can help you decide which

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