Loss Dynamics of Temporal Difference Reinforcement Learning

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Blake Bordelon, Paul Masset, Henry Kuo, Cengiz Pehlevan


Reinforcement learning has been successful across several applications in which agents have to learn to act in environments with sparse feedback. However, despite this empirical success there is still a lack of theoretical understanding of how the parameters of reinforcement learning models and the features used to represent states interact to control the dynamics of learning. In this work, we use concepts from statistical physics, to study the typical case learning curves for temporal difference learning of a value function with linear function approximators. Our theory is derived under a Gaussian equivalence hypothesis where averages over the random trajectories are replaced with temporally correlated Gaussian feature averages and we validate our assumptions on small scale Markov Decision Processes. We find that the stochastic semi-gradient noise due to subsampling the space of possible episodes leads to significant plateaus in the value error, unlike in traditional gradient descent dynamics. We study how learning dynamics and plateaus depend on feature structure, learning rate, discount factor, and reward function. We then analyze how strategies like learning rate annealing and reward shaping can favorably alter learning dynamics and plateaus. To conclude, our work introduces new tools to open a new direction towards developing a theory of learning dynamics in reinforcement learning.