Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 33 (NeurIPS 2020)

*Ruosong Wang, Simon S. Du, Lin Yang, Sham Kakade*

Learning to plan for long horizons is a central challenge in episodic reinforcement learning problems. A fundamental question is to understand how the difficulty of the problem scales as the horizon increases. Here the natural measure of sample complexity is a normalized one: we are interested in the \emph{number of episodes} it takes to provably discover a policy whose value is $\varepsilon$ near to that of the optimal value, where the value is measured by the \emph{normalized} cumulative reward in each episode. In a COLT 2018 open problem, Jiang and Agarwal conjectured that, for tabular, episodic reinforcement learning problems, there exists a sample complexity lower bound which exhibits a polynomial dependence on the horizon --- a conjecture which is consistent with all known sample complexity upper bounds. This work refutes this conjecture, proving that tabular, episodic reinforcement learning is possible with a sample complexity that scales only \emph{logarithmically} with the planning horizon. In other words, when the values are appropriately normalized (to lie in the unit interval), this results shows that long horizon RL is no more difficult than short horizon RL, at least in a minimax sense. Our analysis introduces two ideas: (i) the construction of an $\varepsilon$-net for near-optimal policies whose log-covering number scales only logarithmically with the planning horizon, and (ii) the Online Trajectory Synthesis algorithm, which adaptively evaluates all policies in a given policy class and enjoys a sample complexity that scales logarithmically with the cardinality of the given policy class. Both may be of independent interest.

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