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Evolutionary Function Approximation for Reinforcement Learning

Shimon Whiteson


Temporal difference methods are theoretically grounded and empirically effective methods for addressing reinforcement learning problems. In most real-world reinforcement learning tasks, TD methods require a function approximator to represent the value function. However, using function approximators requires manually making crucial representational decisions. This thesis investigates evolutionary function approximation, a novel approach to automatically selecting function approximator representations that enable efficient individual learning. This method evolves individuals that are better able to learn. I present a fully implemented instantiation of evolutionary function approximation which combines NEAT, a neuroevolutionary optimization technique, with Q-learning, a popular TD method. The resulting NEAT+Q algorithm automatically discovers effective representations for neural network function approximators. This thesis also presents on-line evolutionary computation, which improves the on-line performance of evolutionary computation by borrowing selection mechanisms used in TD methods to choose individual actions and using them in evolutionary computation to select policies for evaluation. I evaluate these contributions with extended empirical studies in two domains: 1) the mountain car task, a standard reinforcement learning benchmark on which neural network function approximators have previously performed poorly and 2) server job scheduling, a large probabilistic domain drawn from the field of autonomic computing. The results demonstrate that evolutionary function approximation can significantly improve the performance of TD methods and on-line evolutionary computation can significantly improve evolutionary methods.

Book Title
GECCO 2006: Proceedings of the Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference Graduate Student Workshop
Best Paper Award‚ Graduate Student Workshop.