The Benefits of Model-Based Generalization in Reinforcement Learning

Kenny Young*, Aditya Ramesh, Louis Kirsch, Jürgen Schmidhuber

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Model-Based Reinforcement Learning (RL) is widely believed to have the potential to improve sample efficiency by allowing an agent to synthesize large amounts of imagined experience. Experience Replay (ER) can be considered a simple kind of model, which has proved effective at improving the stability and efficiency of deep RL. In principle, a learned parametric model could improve on ER by generalizing from real experience to augment the dataset with additional plausible experience. However, given that learned value functions can also generalize, it is not immediately obvious why model generalization should be better. Here, we provide theoretical and empirical insight into when, and how, we can expect data generated by a learned model to be useful. First, we provide a simple theorem motivating how learning a model as an intermediate step can narrow down the set of possible value functions more than learning a value function directly from data using the Bellman equation. Second, we provide an illustrative example showing empirically how a similar effect occurs in a more concrete setting with neural network function approximation. Finally, we provide extensive experiments showing the benefit of model-based learning for online RL in environments with combinatorial complexity, but factored structure that allows a learned model to generalize. In these experiments, we take care to control for other factors in order to isolate, insofar as possible, the benefit of using experience generated by a learned model relative to ER alone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Number of pages23
StatePublished - 2023
Event40th International Conference on Machine Learning, ICML 2023 - Honolulu, United States
Duration: Jul 23 2023Jul 29 2023


Conference40th International Conference on Machine Learning, ICML 2023
Country/TerritoryUnited States

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Software
  • Control and Systems Engineering
  • Statistics and Probability


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