Unicorn: Continual Learning with a Universal, Off-policy Agent

by   Daniel J. Mankowitz, et al.

Some real-world domains are best characterized as a single task, but for others this perspective is limiting. Instead, some tasks continually grow in complexity, in tandem with the agent's competence. In continual learning, also referred to as lifelong learning, there are no explicit task boundaries or curricula. As learning agents have become more powerful, continual learning remains one of the frontiers that has resisted quick progress. To test continual learning capabilities we consider a challenging 3D domain with an implicit sequence of tasks and sparse rewards. We propose a novel agent architecture called Unicorn, which demonstrates strong continual learning and outperforms several baseline agents on the proposed domain. The agent achieves this by jointly representing and learning multiple policies efficiently, using a parallel off-policy learning setup.


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1 Introduction

Continual learning, that is, learning from experience about a continuing stream of tasks in a way that exploits previously acquired knowledge or skills, has been a longstanding challenge to the field of AI (Ring, 1994). A major draw of the setup is its potential for a fully autonomous agent to incrementally build its competence and solve the challenges that a rich and complex environment presents to it – without the intervention of a human that provides datasets, task boundaries, or reward shaping. Instead, the agent considers tasks that continually grow in complexity, as the agent’s competence increases. An ideal continual learning agent should be able to (A) solve multiple tasks, (B) exhibit synergies when tasks are related, and (C) cope with deep dependency structures among tasks (e.g., a lock can only be unlocked after its key has been picked up).

A plethora of continual learning techniques exist in the supervised learning setting (see

Parisi et al. (2018) for a full review). However, as noted by Parisi et al. Parisi et al. (2018)

, more research is needed to tackle continual learning with autonomous agents in uncertain environments - a setting well-suited to Reinforcement Learning (RL). Previous work on continual learning with RL, and specifically on solving tasks with deep dependency structures, has typically focused on

separating learning into two stages; that is first individual skills are acquired separately and then later recombined to help solve a more challenging task (Tessler et al., 2017; Oh et al., 2017; Finn et al., 2017). Finn et al. (2017) framed this as meta-learning and trained an agent on a distribution of tasks that is explicitly designed to adapt to a new task in that distribution with very little additional learning. In a linear RL setting Ammar et al. Ammar et al. (2015) , learn a latent basis via policy gradients to solve new tasks as they are encountered. Brunskill and Li Brunskill and Li (2014) derive sample complexity bounds for option discovery in a lifelong learning setting.

In this work we aim to solve tasks with deep dependency structures using single-stage end-to-end learning. In addition, we aim to train the agent on all tasks simultaneously regardless of their complexity. Experience can then be shared across tasks, enabling the agent to efficiently develop competency for each task in parallel. To achieve this, we need to combine task generalization with off-policy learning. There are a number of RL techniques that perform task generalization by incorporating tasks directly into the definition of the value function Sutton et al. (2011); Dietterich (2000); Kaelbling (1993). Universal Value Function Approximators (UVFAs) Schaul et al. (2015) is the latest iteration of these works that effectively combines a Horde of ‘demons’ as in Sutton et al. Sutton et al. (2011) into a single value function with shared parameters. We combine UVFAs, which originally performed two-stage learning Schaul et al. (2015), with off-policy goal learning updates Sutton et al. (2011); Ashar (1994); Peng and Williams (1994) into an end-to-end, state-of-the-art parallel agent architecture Mnih et al. (2016); Espeholt et al. (2018) for continual learning. The novel combination of these components, yields a continual learning RL agent, which we call the Unicorn111Unicorn stands for “UNIversal Continual Off-policy Reinforcement learNing”. that is capable of learning, at scale, on non-trivial tasks with deep dependency structures (Figure 1, top). The Unicorn agent consistently solves such domains, and outperforms baselines (Figure 1, bottom), by sharing experience and reusing representations and skills across tasks. We also show that the Unicorn can naturally (A) solve multiple tasks (without dependencies) as well as (B) exhibit synergies when tasks are related.

Figure 1: () Top: Continual learning domain: acting in the rich 3D environment of DM Lab (screenshot, left), find and pick up objects in the specific order key, lock, door, chest (diagram, right). Any deviation from that order resets the sequence (dashed gray lines). Bottom: Unicorn performance: our method quickly leans to become competent on the 4 subtasks, as compared to the final performance of the best baseline (glutton, dashed line). Relative competence increases in stages, from easy (key) to hard (chest), and the margin of improvement over the baseline is largest on the hardest subtasks (see section 4.5 for details). () Schematic view of the parallel Unicorn agent architecture. Rollouts of experience are stored in a global queue. Gradients w.r.t. the loss are propagated through the UVFA. After every training step, all actors are synchronized with the latest global UVFA parameters.

2 Background

Reinforcement learning (RL) is a computational framework for making decisions under uncertainty in sequential-time decision making problems Sutton and Barto (1998)

. An RL problem is formulated as a Markov decision process (MDP), defined as a

-tuple where is a set of states, is a set of actions, is the reward function,

is a transition probability distribution and

is a discount factor. A policy maps states to a probability distribution over actions. We define the return from a given time step as the discounted sum of rewards: , where . Action value functions estimate the expected return for an agent that selects an action in some state , and follows policy thereafter. The optimal action value function estimates the expected return with respect to the optimal policy .

Q-learning Watkins (1989); Watkins and Dayan (1992) can be used to estimate the optimal action value function , via an iterative bootstrapping procedure in which is updated towards a bootstrap target that is constructed using the estimated Q-value at the next state: . The difference is referred to as the temporal difference (TD) error Sutton and Barto (1998).

Multi-step Q-learning variants Watkins (1989); Peng and Williams (1994); De Asis et al. (2017) use multiple transitions in a single bootstrap target. A common choice is the n-step return defined as . In calculating n-step returns there may be a mismatch in the action selection between the target and behavior policy within the steps. In order to learn off-policy, this mismatch can be corrected using a variety of techniques Sutton et al. (2009); Maei et al. (2010); Precup et al. (2001); Munos et al. (2016). We deal with off-policy corrections by truncating the returns whenever a non-greedy action is selected, as suggested by Watkins Watkins (1989).

Universal Value Function Approximators (UVFA) extend value functions to be conditional on a goal signal

, with their function approximator (such as a deep neural network) sharing an internal, goal-independent representation of the state

Schaul et al. (2015). As a result, a UVFA can compactly represent multiple policies; for example conditioning on any goal signal produces the corresponding greedy policy. UVFA’s have previously been implemented in a two step process involving a matrix factorization step to learn the embedding(s) and a separate multi-variate regression procedure. In contrast, the Unicorn learns end-to-end, in a joint parallel training setup with off-policy goal learning and corrections.

Tasks vs. goals. For the purposes of this paper, we assign distinct meanings to the terms task () and goal signal (). A goal signal modulates the behavior of an agent (e.g., as input to the UVFA). In contrast, a task defines a pseudo-reward (e.g., if a key

was collected and 0 otherwise). During learning, a vector containing all pseudo-rewards is visible to the agent on each transition, even if it is pursuing one specific goal. Each experiment defines a discrete set of

tasks . In transfer experiments, tasks are split between training tasks and hold-out tasks.

3 Unicorn

This section introduces the Unicorn agent architecture with the following properties to facilitate continual learning. (A): The agent should have the ability to simultaneously learn about multiple tasks, enabling domains where new tasks are continuously encountered. We use a joint parallel training setup with different actors working on different tasks to accomplish this (sections 3.2 and section 3.4). (B): As the agent accumulates more knowledge, we want it to generalize by reusing some of its knowledge to solve related tasks. This is accomplished by using a single UVFA to capture knowledge about all tasks, with a separation of goal-dependent and goal-independent representations to facilitate transfer (section 3.1). (C): The agent should be effective in domains where tasks have a deep dependency structure. This is the most challenging aspect, but is enabled by off-policy learning from the experience across all tasks (section 3.3). For example, an actor pursuing the door goal will sometimes, upon opening a door, subsequently stumble upon a chest. To the door-pursuing actor this is an irrelevant (non-rewarding) event, but when learning about the chest task this same event is highly interesting as it is one of the rare non-zero reward transitions.

3.1 Value function architecture

A key component of the Unicorn agent is a UVFA, which is an approximator, such as a neural network, that learns to approximate . The power of this approximator lies in its ability to be conditioned on a goal signal . This enables the UVFA to learn about multiple tasks simultaneously where the tasks themselves may vary in their level of difficulty (e.g., tasks with deep dependencies). The UVFA architecture is depicted schematically in Figure 2: the current frame of visual input is processed by a convolutional network (CNN) LeCun et al. (1998)

, followed by a recurrent layer of long short-term memory (LSTM)

Hochreiter and Schmidhuber (1997). As in Espeholt et al. (2018) the previous action and reward are part of the observation. The output of the LSTM is concatenated with an “inventory stack”, to be described in section 4.1, to form a goal-independent representation of state . This vector is then concatenated with a goal signal

and further processed via two layers of a multi-layer perceptron (MLP) with ReLU non-linearities to produce the output vector of Q-values (one for each possible action

). The union of trainable parameters from all these components is denoted by

. Further details about the networks and hyperparameters can be found in Appendix


3.2 Behaviour policy

At the beginning of each episode, a goal signal is sampled uniformly, and is held constant for the entire episode. The policy executed is -greedy after conditioning the UVFA on the current goal signal : with probability the action taken is chosen uniformly from , otherwise .

Figure 2: UVFA architecture. Observations are processed via a CNN and an LSTM block to produce a goal-independent representation , which is concatenated with the goal signal , and then processed by an MLP.

3.3 Off-policy multi-task learning

Another key component of the Unicorn agent is its ability to learn about multiple tasks off-policy. Therefore, even though it may be acting on-policy with respect to a particular task, it can still learn about other tasks from this shared experience in parallel. Concretely, when learning from a sequence of transitions, Q-values are estimated for all goal signals in the training set and -step returns are computed for each corresponding task as . When a trajectory is generated by a policy conditioned on one goal signal (the on-policy goal with respect to this trajectory), but used to learn about the policy of another goal signal (the off-policy goal with respect to this trajectory), then there are often action mismatches, so the off-policy multi-step bootstrapped targets become increasingly inaccurate. Following Watkins (1989), we therefore truncate the -step return by bootstrapping at all times when the taken action does not match what a policy conditioned on would have taken,222Returns are also truncated for the on-policy goal when epsilon (i.e., non-greedy) actions are chosen. i.e. whenever . The network is updated with gradient descent on the sum of TD errors across tasks and unrolled trajectory of length (and possibly a mini-batch dimension ), yielding the squared loss (Equation 1) where errors are not propagated into the targets .


3.4 Parallel agent implementation

To effectively train such a system at scale, we employ a parallel agent setup consisting of multiple actors333For our transfer experiments, a separate set of actor machines perform evaluation, by executing policies conditioned on the hold-out goal signals, but without sending any experience back to the learner. Further details about the Unicorn agent setup, the hardware used, as well as all hyperparameters can be found in Appendix A., running on separate (CPU) machines, that generate sequences of interactions with the environment, and a single learner (GPU machine) that pulls this experience from a queue, processes it in mini-batches, and updates the value network (see Figure 1). This is similar to the recently proposed Importance Weighted Actor-Learner Architecture agent Espeholt et al. (2018).

Each actor continuously executes the most recent policy for some goal signal . Together they generate the experience that is sent to the learner in the form of trajectories of length , which are stored in a global queue. Before each new trajectory, an actor requests the most recent UVFA parameters from the learner. Note that all actors run in parallel and at any given time will generally follow different goals.

The learner batches up trajectories of experience pulled from the global queue (to exploit GPU parallelism), passes them through the network, computes the loss in equation 1, updates the parameters , and provides the most recent parameters to actors upon request. Batching happens both across all training tasks, and across time-steps ( trajectories of length ). Unlike DQN Mnih et al. (2015), we do not use a target network, nor experience replay: the large amount of diverse experience passing through seems to suffice for stability.

4 Experiments

Following our stated motivation for building continual learning agents, we set up a number of experiments that test the Unicorn’s capability to solve multiple, related and dependent tasks. Specifically, we now briefly discuss how the list of desirables properties presented in section 3 are addressed in the sections to follow. Section 4.3 measures Unicorn’s capability of learning about multiple tasks simultaneously (A), using a single experience stream and a single policy network; each task consists of collecting a different kind of object. The setup in section 4.4 investigates the extent to which knowledge about such tasks can be transferred to related tasks (B), which involve collecting objects of unseen shape-color combinations, for example. Finally, section 4.5 investigates the full problem of continual learning with a deep dependency structure between tasks (C) such that each is a strict prerequisite for the next.

4.1 Domain

All of these experiments take place in the Treasure World domain444The Treasure World source code will soon be released., shown in Figure 1. We chose a visually rich 3D navigation domain within the DM Lab Beattie et al. (2016) framework. The specific level used consists of one large room filled with objects of multiple types. Whenever an object of one kind is collected, it respawns at a random location in the room. Episodes last for 60 in-game seconds, which corresponds to time-steps. The continual learning experiments last for 120 in-game seconds. It is important to note that the objects used in the multi-task and transfer domains are different color variations of cassettes, chairs, balloons and guitars. For continual learning, the TV, ball, balloon and cake objects play the functional roles of a key, lock, door and chest respectively. Visual observations are provided only via a first-person perspective, and are augmented with an inventory stack with the five most recently collected objects (Figure 4). Picking up is done by simply walking into the object. There is no special pick-up action; however, pick-ups can be conditional, e.g., a lock can only be picked up if the key was picked up previously (see Figure 4). The goal signals are pre-defined one-hot vectors unless otherwise stated.

4.2 Baselines

We compare three baselines to the Unicorn agent. The first baseline is the single-task expert baseline that uses the same architecture and training setup, but acts always on-policy for its single task, and learns only about its single task; in other words, the agent uses a constant goal signal . We train one of these agents for each individual task. To compare performance, we evaluate the Unicorn on-policy for the corresponding single task; and then report this performance averaged across all tasks for both the expert baseline and the Unicorn. There are two reasonable ways to relate these performance curves: We can (a) focus on wall-clock time and compare Unicorn performance to the single matching expert (because each expert can be trained in parallel as a separate network). We average the single matching expert performance for each task and denote this baseline as expert (single) to indicate an upper performance bound. This baseline uses dotted lines because the horizontal axis is not directly comparable, as the experts together consume times more experience than the Unicorn. We can also (b) focus on sample-complexity and take all the experience consumed by all experts into account. In this case, the axes are directly comparable and we denote this baseline as expert. The second type of baseline, denoted glutton, also uses the same architecture and training setup, but uses a single composite task whose pseudo-reward is the sum of rewards of all the other tasks . This is also a single-task agent that always acts on-policy according to this cumulative goal. Its performance is measured by calculating the rewards the glutton policy obtains on the individual tasks. This baseline is directly comparable in terms of compute and sample complexity, but of course it optimizes for a different objective, so its maximal performance is inherently limited because it cannot specialize. It is nevertheless useful in scenarios where the expert baseline fails to get off the ground (section 4.5). As a third baseline, we indicate the performance of a uniformly random policy.

Figure 3: (): Multi-task learning. A single Unicorn agent learns to competently collect any out of 16 object types in the environment. Each thin red line corresponds to the on-policy performance for one such task; the thick line is their average. We observe that performance across all tasks increases together, and much faster, than when learning separately about each task (black). See text for the baseline descriptions. (): Off-policy transfer: The average performance across the 12 training tasks is shown in green. Without additional training, the same agent is evaluated on the 4 cyan tasks (thin red learning curves): it has learned to generalize well from fully off-policy experience. (): Continual learning domain, final performance results after 1.5B frames. Each bar shows the average rewards obtained by one policy, with the height of the colored blocks showing the decomposition of tasks. E.g. the Unicorn’s door policy typically collects 15 keys, 12 locks, 10 doors and 1 chest. Note that the strict ordering imposed by the domain requires that there are always at least as many keys as lock

s, etc. Black bars indicate the standard deviation across 5 independent runs.

4.3 Learning multiple tasks

Figure 4: (): Training and hold-out tasks for each of the three transfer experiments. Each square represents one task that requires collecting objects of a specific shape and color. Hold-out tasks are surrounded by orange boxes. The augmented training set (III) includes the abstract tasks that reward just color or just shape. (): Inventory stack and pseudo-rewards. Each row illustrates an event where the agent touches an object. The inventory stack (left) tracks the sequence of recently collected objects, the pseudo-reward vector (right) is used to train the agent, and is 4-dimensional in this case because there are visible 4 tasks. See section 4.5, where pseudo-rewards require the stack to contain the dependent objects in the correct order (key, lock, door, chest) – any extra object resets the sequence (like the door in row 3).

The multi-task Treasure World experiment uses 16 unique objects types (all objects have one of 4 colors and one of 4 shapes), with an associated task for each of them: picking up that one type of object is rewarding, and all others can be ignored. Figure 3 shows the learning curves for Unicorn and how they relate to the baselines; data is from two independent runs. We see that learning works on all of the tasks (small gap between the best and the worst), and that learning about all of them simultaneously is more sample-efficient than training separate experts, which indicates that there is beneficial generalization between tasks. As expected, the final Unicorn performance is much higher than that of the glutton baseline.

Ablative study - scalability: We conducted an experiment to understand the scalability of the agent to an increasing number of tasks. Figure 6 in the appendix shows results for the setup of object types: the results are qualitatively the same as , but training is at about twice as fast (for both Unicorn and the baselines), indicating a roughly linear scalability for multi-task learning. Scaling to even larger numbers of tasks is a matter for future work, and some ideas are presented in Section 5.

4.4 Generalization to related tasks

Figure 5: Combinatorial zero-shot transfer. Left: during training (green), the Unicorn agent sees only a subset of 12 tasks, and experience from those 12 behavior policies (II). The transfer evaluation is done by executing the policies for the 4 hold-out tasks (without additional training). After an initial fast uptick, transfer performance drops again, presumably because the agent specializes to only the 12 objects that matter in training. Note that it is far above random because even when conditioned on hold-out goal signals, the agent moves around efficiently and picks up transfer objects along the way. Right: zero-shot transfer performance is significantly improved when the training tasks include the 8 abstract tasks (III), for a total of .

In the same setup of 16 object types as above, we conduct three different transfer learning experiments that test generalization to new tasks. Figure 

4 summarizes what the training and hold-out sets are for each experiment.

Ablative study - Learning only from off-policy updates: In the first experiment (Figure 4-I), the Unicorn actors only act on-policy with respect to the 12 training goal signals (all non-cyan objects), but learning happens for the full set of 16 objects; in other words the cyan objects (surrounded by the orange bounding box) form a partial hold-out set, and are learned purely from off-policy experience. Figure 3 summarizes the results, which show that the agent can indeed learn about goals from purely off-policy experience. Learning is not much slower than the on-policy goals, but plateaus at a slightly suboptimal level of performance.

The second experiment (Figure 4-II) investigates zero-shot transfer to a set of four hold-out tasks (objects within the orange boxes) that see neither on-policy experience nor learning updates. Generalization happens only through the relation in how goal signals are represented: each is a two-hot binary vector with one bit per color and one bit per shape. Successful zero-shot transfer would require the UVFA to factor the set of tasks into shape and color, and interpret the hold-out goal signals correctly. Figure 5 (left) shows the average performance of the hold-out tasks, referred to as zero-shot, compared to the training tasks and the additional baselines. We observe that there is some amount of zero-shot transfer, because the zero-shot policy is clearly better than random.

The third experiment (Figure 4-III) augments the set of training tasks by 8 abstract tasks ( training tasks in total) where reward is given for picking up any object of one color (independently of shape), or any object of one shape (independently of color). Their goal signals are represented as one-hot vectors . Figure 5 (right) shows that this augmented training set substantially helps the zero-shot performance, referred to as zero-shot augmented, above what the glutton baseline can do. These results are consistent with those of Hermann et al. (2017).

4.5 Continual learning with deep dependencies

This section presents experiments that test the Unicorn agent’s ability to solve tasks with deep dependency structures (C). For this, we modified the Treasure World setup slightly: it now contains four copies of the four555With only 16 (respawning) objects in total, this is less dense than in the experiments above, in order to make it less likely that the agent collects an out-of-sequence object by mistake. different object types, namely key, lock, door and chest, which need to be collected in this given order (see also Figure 1). The vector of pseudo-rewards corresponding to these tasks is illustrated in Figure 4, which also shows how these are conditioned on precise sequences in the inventory: to trigger a reward for the door task, the previous two entries must be key and lock, in that order (e.g., second row of the inventory stack). Any object picked up out of order breaks the chain, and requires starting with the key again.

This setup captures some essential properties of difficult continual learning domains: multiple tasks are present in the same domain simultaneously, but they are not all of the same difficulty – instead they form a natural ordering where improving the competence on one task results in easier exploration or better performance on the subsequent one. Even if as designers we care only about the performance on the final task (chest), continual learning in the enriched task space is more effective than learning only on that task in isolation. The bar-plot in Figure 3 shows this stark contrast: compare the height of the violet bars (that is, performance on the chest task) for ‘unicorn(chest)’ and ‘expert(chest)’ – the Unicorn’s continual learning approach scores on average, while the dedicated expert baseline scores , not better than random.

Figure 1, and in more depth, Figure 13 in the appendix, show the temporal progression of the continual learning. Initially, the agent has a very low chance of encountering a chest reward (flatlining for 200M steps). However, a quarter of the Unicorn’s experience is generated in pursuit of the key goal; an easy task that is quickly learned. During those trajectories, there is often a key on top of the inventory stack, and the agent regularly stumbles upon a lock (about 4 times per episode, see the gray curve on the second panel of Figure 13). While such events are irrelevant for the key task, the off-policy learning allows the same experience to be used in training for the lock task, quickly increasing its performance. This same dynamic is what in turn helps with getting off the ground on the door task, and later the chest task. Across 5 independent runs, the chest expert baseline was never better than random. On the other hand, the glutton baseline learned a lot about the domain: at the end of training, it collects an average of 38.72 key, 16.64 lock, 6.05 door and 1.05 chest rewards. As it is rewarded for all 4 equally, it also encounters the same kind of natural curriculum, but with different incentives: it is unable to prioritize chest rewards. E.g., after a sequence (key, lock, door), it is equally likely to go for a key or a chest next, picking the nearest. This happens at every level and explains why task performance goes down by a factor 2 each time the dependency depth increases (Figure 1). In contrast, the Unicorn conditioned on collects an average of 9.93 key, 6.99 lock, 5.92 door and 4.75 chest rewards at the end of training. A video of the Unicorn performance in the object setup and when solving CL Treasure World can be found in the supplementary material and is available online666https://youtu.be/h4lawNq2B9M.

Ablative study - scalability: Additional experiments on a simpler version of the experiment with only 3 objects can be found in the appendix (Figures 11 and 14). In that case, the single-task expert baseline eventually learns the final task, but very slowly compared to the Unicorn. The difficulty increases steeply when going from 4 to 5 strictly dependent tasks (adding cake after chest), see Figures 12 and 15 in the appendix. In both these cases, the baselines fail to get off the ground.

Preliminary Ablative study - Meta-learning. Closely related to the choice of how to act in the presence of many goals is the choice of what (pseudo-rewards) to learn about, which can be seen as a form of learning to learn, or meta-learning Schaul and Schmidhuber (2010). In particular, an automatic curriculum Karpathy and Van De Panne (2012); Graves et al. (2017); Heess et al. (2017); Sukhbaatar et al. (2017); Riedmiller et al. (2018) with progressively more emphasis on harder tasks can accelerate learning via more efficient exploration and better generalization Bengio et al. (2009); Florensa et al. (2017); Graves et al. (2017). In preliminary experiments (not shown), we attempted to do this by letting a bandit algorithm pick among goal signals in order to maximize the expected squared TD error (a proxy for how much can be learned). We found this to not be clearly better than uniform sampling, consistent with Graves et al. (2017).

5 Discussion

Richer task spaces. The related work on successor features Barreto et al. (2017) devised a particularly simple way of defining multiple tasks within the same space and decomposable task-dependent value functions. Incorporating successor features into the Unicorn would make it easy to specify richer task interactions where the goals may be learned, continuous, or have ‘don’t care’ dimensions.
Discovery. Our setup provides explicit task definitions and goal signals to the agent, and thus does not address the so-called discovery problem of autonomously decomposing a complex tasks into useful subtasks. This challenging open area of research is beyond our current scope. One promising direction for future work would be to discover domain-relevant goal spaces using unsupervised learning, as in the ‘feature control’ setting of UNREAL Jaderberg et al. (2016) or the -VAE Higgins et al. (2016).
Hierarchy. Our method of acting according to uniformly sampled goal signals is too simple for richer goal spaces. Fortunately, this problem of intelligently choosing goal signals can be framed as a higher level decision problem in a hierarchical setup; and the literature on hierarchical RL contains numerous approaches that would be compatible with our setup Sutton et al. (1998); Bacon and Precup (2017); Mankowitz et al. (2016); Vezhnevets et al. (2017); Kulkarni et al. (2016); possibly allowing the higher-level agent to switch goal signals more often than once per episode.
Agent improvements. Additions include optimizing for risk-aware, Tamar et al. (2015), robust Tamar et al. (2014); Mankowitz et al. (2018) as well as exploratory Bellemare et al. (2017); O’Donoghue et al. (2017) objectives to yield improved performance. Combining Rainbow-style Hessel et al. (2017) additions to the UVFA objective as well as auxiliary tasks Jaderberg et al. (2016) may also improve the performance.

6 Conclusion

We have presented the Unicorn, a novel agent architecture that exhibits the core properties required for continual learning: (1) learning about multiple tasks, (2) leveraging learned knowledge to solve related tasks, even with zero-shot transfer and (3) solving tasks with deep dependencies. All of this is made efficient by off-policy learning from many parallel streams of experience coming from a distributed setup. Experiments in a rich 3D environment indicate that the Unicorn clearly outperforms the corresponding single-task baseline agents, scales well, and manages to exploit the natural curriculum present in the set of tasks. The ablative studies indicate that learning can be performed purely off-policy, scaling in the multi-task setting is approximately linear, and learning a curriculum using a bandit may require a non-trivial learning signal to improve performance as discussed by Graves et al..


Appendix A Unicorn architecture and hyperparameters

a.1 Network Architecture

The neural network architecture consist of two convolutional layers (with 16-32 kernels of size 8-4 and stride 4-2 respectively). The convolutional layers are followed by a fully connected layer with 256 outputs and an LSTM with a state size of 256. A one-hot encoding of the previous action and the previous clipped reward are also concatenated to the input to the LSTM.

The output of the LSTM layer is concatenated with an inventory , which is a single vector, augmented with the one-hot representations of the last five objects collected by the agent. The parameter is the length of the dependency chain. This yields the feature vector as described in the main paper. At this point, we input the entire set of goals into the network as a one-hot matrix where is the number of goals, and is the dimensionality of the goal representation. The row of this matrix defines the goal . We then duplicate to generate a matrix and concatenate with the goal matrix to form a feature matrix. This matrix is then fed through an MLP consisting of two hidden layers with ReLU activations. The hidden layer output sizes are and respectively, where is the number of actions available to the agent. This yields a matrix of Q-values, where row corresponds to . At the start of each episode, each UVFA actor is randomly assigned a goal and chooses actions in an epsilon greedy fashion.

a.2 Loss

We optimize the loss with the TensorFlow implementation of the RMSProp optimizer, using a fixed learning rate of

, a decay of , no momentum, and an epsilon equal to . The n-step targets are considered fixed and gradients are not back-propagated through them.

a.3 Distributed setup

200 actors execute in parallel on multiple machines, each generating sequences of 20 environment frames, batched in groups of 32 when processed by the learner.

a.4 State and Action Space

The state observation is a rendered image frame with a resolution of , and pixel values are rescaled so as to fall between and .

The actors use an 8 dimensional discrete action space:

  1. [topsep=0em]

  2. Forward

  3. Backward

  4. Strafe left

  5. Strafe right

  6. Look left

  7. Look right

  8. Look left and forward

  9. Look right and forward.

Each action selected by the actor is executed for 8 consecutive frames (action repeats is - Table 1) in the environment before querying the actor for the next action. The actors select actions using an -greedy policy where is annealed from to over the first million environment frames.

a.5 Hyperparameter Tuning

A grid search was performed across a selected set of hyperparameters in order to further improve the performance. Table 1 lists all of the hyperparameters, their corresponding values and whether they were tuned or not.

Appendix B Videos

A video is included with the supplementary material showcasing the performance of the trained Unicorn in a multi-task and continual learning setting.

b.1 Learning about multiple tasks

In the multi-task setting, the Unicorn conditions one of its UVFA actors on the goal of collecting red balloons. As can be seen in the video, the Unicorn UVFA agent searches for, and collects, red balloons. Due to the clutter in the environment, it may occasionally collect an incorrect object. The performance of the Unicorn compared to the baselines for collecting red balloons can be seen in Figure 7.

b.2 Learning deep dependency structures

In the continual learning setting, we showcase the performance of the trained Unicorn agent in a setting with a dependency chain of length (i.e. key lock door) and a chain of length (i.e. key lock door chest). In both cases, we condition the Unicorn agent on the goal corresponding to the deepest dependency (i.e. collect a door reward for the dependency chain of length and collect a chest reward for the chain of length ). The Unicorn agent only receives a reward for the task if it achieved all of the prerequisite tasks in the order given above, yielding a sparse reward problem. As can be seen in the video, the agent is, in both settings, able to achieve the deepest dependency task. The performance of the Unicorn in each task can be seen in Figures 11 and 13 for dependency chains of length and respectively.

Hyperparameter Value Tuned
learning rate
batch size
unroll length
action repeats
end value
decay rate
num. actors
Table 1: Hyperparameter settings for the Unicorn architecture.

Appendix C Additional results

We have additional figures corresponding to:

  1. [topsep=0em]

  2. Learning about multiple tasks.

  3. Transfer to related tasks.

  4. Learning about deep dependency structures.

c.1 Learning about multiple tasks

Figure 6 presents the performance of the Unicorn compared to the various baselines discussed in the main paper for multi-task learning with objects. Figure 7 presents multi-task learning curves on a subset of out of the objects in the multi-task learning with objects setup.

c.2 Transfer to related tasks

Figure 7 shows the pure off-policy learning results where objects of a single color (cyan) were placed into a hold-out set and were only learned about from pure off-policy experience. We can see in Figure 7 (right) the ability of the Unicorn to learn from pure off-policy experience and solve the task of collecting cyan guitars; albeit in a slightly sub-optimal manner.

Figures 9 and 10 present the performance of the Unicorn agent when performing zero shot learning on four hold-out tasks for and training tasks respectively. In these cases, the Unicorn has seen no training data from any of these tasks; in contrast to the off-policy experiments detailed in the previous paragraph.

c.3 Learning about deep dependencies

Figure 13 presents the performance of the Unicorn compared to the baselines as a function of learning samples for a dependency chain of length . As can be seen in the graphs, the expert fails to get off the ground whereas the Unicorn learns to collect a significant amount of chest rewards.

Figure 11 presents early ( million frames) and late ( million frames) Unicorn performance for the chain dependency task (key, lock, door). The performance for each task as a function of learning samples can be seen in Figure 14. As can be seen in the graphs, the expert does reach comparable performance to that of the Unicorn, but takes a significantly longer time to converge. Figure 12 shows the learning performance of the chain dependency task (key, lock, door, chest, cake). The performance as a function of learning samples can be found in Figure 15. As seen in the figures, the Unicorn fails to solve the cake task in the chain dependency setup. We mention some future directions in the Discussion section of the main paper that may scale the Unicorn to solve even deeper dependency structures.

Figure 6: Multi-task learning with 7 objects. Performance is qualitatively very similar to Figure 3 with 16 objects, except that learning is overall faster.
Figure 7: Multi-task learning curves, performance on a subset of 4 out of the 16 tasks, as indicated by the subplot titles. There are two lines for each color, which are from two separate seeds.
Figure 8: Off-policy transfer learning curves. Only the last subplot guitar cyan is a transfer task. See caption of Figure 7.
Figure 9: Zero-shot transfer learning curves on all 4 transfer tasks. See caption of Figure 7.
Figure 10: Augmented zero-shot transfer learning curves on all 4 transfer tasks. See caption of Figure 7.
Figure 11: Continual learning with depth 3 task dependency. Early learning (above) and late learning (below). The performance gap compared to the expert is much larger in the beginning. See caption of Figure 3.
Figure 12: Continual learning with depth 5 task dependency. This is a partially negative result because the Unicorn learns to eat a lot of cake, but only when following the chest policy. See caption of Figure 3.
Figure 13: Continual learning with depth 4 task dependency. Performance curves as a function of learning samples. Each subplot shows the performance on one of the tasks (e.g. only counting chest rewards on the right-hand side). Thin lines are individual runs (5 seeds), thick line show the mean across seeds. In all 4 subplots the expert (black) is a single-minded baseline agent maximizing the (very sparse) chest reward only.
Figure 14: Continual learning with depth 3 task dependency. Performance curves as a function of learning samples. See caption of Figure 13.
Figure 15: Continual learning with depth 5 task dependency. Performance curves as a function of learning samples. See caption of Figure 13.