Carnegie Mellon University
eparisot_phd_mld_2021.pdf (20.02 MB)

Meta Reinforcement Learning through Memory

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posted on 2022-12-02, 19:40 authored by Emilio ParisottoEmilio Parisotto

Modern deep reinforcement learning (RL) algorithms, despite being at the forefront of artificial intelligence capabilities, typically require a prohibitive amount of training samples to reach a human-equivalent level of performance. This severe data inefficiency is the major obstruction to deep RL’s practical application: it is often near impossible to apply deep RL to any domain without at least a simulator available. Motivated to address this critical data inefficiency, in this thesis we work towards the design of meta-learning agents that are capable of rapidly adapting to new environments. In contrast to standard reinforcement learning, meta-learning learns over distributions of environments, from which specific tasks are sampled and with which the meta-learner is directly optimized to improve the speed of policy improvement on. By exploiting a distribution of tasks which share common substructure with the tasks of interest, the meta-learner can adjust its own inductive biases to enable rapid adaptation at test time.

This thesis focuses on the design of meta-learning algorithms which exploit memory as the main mechanism driving rapid adaptation in novel environments. Meta learning with inter-episodic memories are a class of meta-learning methods that leverage a memory architecture conditioned on the entire interaction history of a particular environment to produce a policy. The learning dynamics driving policy improvement in a particular task are thus subsumed by the computational process of the sequence model, essentially offloading the design of the learning algorithm to the architecture. While conceptually straightforward, meta-learning using inter-episodic memory is highly effective and remains a state-of-the-art method. 

We present and discuss several techniques for meta-learning through memory. The first part of the thesis focuses on the “embodied” class of environments, where an agent has a physical manifestation in an environment resembling the natural world. We exploit this highly structured set of environments to work towards the design of a monolithic embodied agent architecture that has the capabilities of rapid memorization, planning and state inference. In the second part of the thesis, we move to focus on methods that apply in general environments without strong common substructure. First, we re-examine the modes of interaction a meta-learning agent has with the environment: proposing to replace the typically sequential processing of interaction history with a concurrent execution framework where multiple agents act in the environment in parallel. Next, we discuss the use of a general and powerful sequence model for inter-episodic memory, the gated transformer, demonstrating large improvements in performance and data efficiency. Finally, we develop a method that significantly reduces the training cost and acting latency of transformer models in (meta-)reinforcement learning settings, with the aim to both (1) make their use more widespread within the research community, and, (2) unlock their use in real-time and latency-constrained applications, such as in robotics.




Degree Type

  • Dissertation


  • Machine Learning

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Ruslan Salakhutdinov

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