Breaking the Sample Size Barrier in Model-Based Reinforcement Learning with a Generative Model

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

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Gen Li, Yuting Wei, Yuejie Chi, Yuantao Gu, Yuxin Chen


We investigate the sample efficiency of reinforcement learning in a $\gamma$-discounted infinite-horizon Markov decision process (MDP) with state space S and action space A, assuming access to a generative model. Despite a number of prior work tackling this problem, a complete picture of the trade-offs between sample complexity and statistical accuracy is yet to be determined. In particular, prior results suffer from a sample size barrier, in the sense that their claimed statistical guarantees hold only when the sample size exceeds at least $ |S| |A| / (1-\gamma)^2 $ (up to some log factor). The current paper overcomes this barrier by certifying the minimax optimality of model-based reinforcement learning as soon as the sample size exceeds the order of $ |S| |A| / (1-\gamma) $ (modulo some log factor). More specifically, a perturbed model-based planning algorithm provably finds an $\epsilon$-optimal policy with an order of $ |S| |A| / ((1-\gamma)^3\epsilon^2 ) $ samples (up to log factor) for any $0< \epsilon < 1/(1-\gamma)$. Along the way, we derive improved (instance-dependent) guarantees for model-based policy evaluation. To the best of our knowledge, this work provides the first minimax-optimal guarantee in a generative model that accommodates the entire range of sample sizes (beyond which finding a meaningful policy is information theoretically impossible).