Trust the Model When It Is Confident: Masked Model-based Actor-Critic

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

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Feiyang Pan, Jia He, Dandan Tu, Qing He


It is a popular belief that model-based Reinforcement Learning (RL) is more sample efficient than model-free RL, but in practice, it is not always true due to overweighed model errors. In complex and noisy settings, model-based RL tends to have trouble using the model if it does not know when to trust the model.

In this work, we find that better model usage can make a huge difference. We show theoretically that if the use of model-generated data is restricted to state-action pairs where the model error is small, the performance gap between model and real rollouts can be reduced. It motivates us to use model rollouts only when the model is confident about its predictions. We propose Masked Model-based Actor-Critic (M2AC), a novel policy optimization algorithm that maximizes a model-based lower-bound of the true value function. M2AC implements a masking mechanism based on the model's uncertainty estimation to decide whether the model should be used or not. Consequently, the new algorithm tends to give robust policy improvements. Experiments on continuous control benchmarks demonstrate that M2AC has strong performance even when using long model rollouts in very noisy environments, and significantly outperforms previous state-of-the-art methods.