Reinforcement learning is learning what to do--how to map situations to actions--so as to maximize a numerical reward signal. The learner is not told which actions to take, as in most forms of machine learning, but instead must discover which actions yield the most reward by trying them. In the most interesting and challenging cases, actions may affect not only the immediate reward but also the next situation and, through that, all subsequent rewards. These two characteristics--trial-and-error search and delayed reward--are the two most important distinguishing features of reinforcement learning.
Reinforcement learning is defined not by characterizing learning methods, but by characterizing a learning problem. Any method that is well suited to solving that problem, we consider to be a reinforcement learning method. The basic idea is simply to capture the most important aspects of the real problem facing a learning agent interacting with its environment to achieve a goal. Clearly, such an agent must be able to sense the state of the environment to some extent and must be able to take actions that affect the state. The agent also must have a goal or goals relating to the state of the environment. The formulation is intended to include just these three aspects--sensation, action, and goal--in their simplest possible forms without trivializing any of them.
Reinforcement learning is different from supervised learning, the kind of learning studied in most current research in machine learning, statistical pattern recognition, and artificial neural networks. Supervised learning is learning from examples provided by a knowledgable external supervisor. This is an important kind of learning, but alone it is not adequate for learning from interaction. In interactive problems it is often impractical to obtain examples of desired behavior that are both correct and representative of all the situations in which the agent has to act. In uncharted territory--where one would expect learning to be most beneficial--an agent must be able to learn from its own experience.
One of the challenges that arise in reinforcement learning and not in other kinds of learning is the trade-off between exploration and exploitation. To obtain a lot of reward, a reinforcement learning agent must prefer actions that it has tried in the past and found to be effective in producing reward. But to discover such actions, it has to try actions that it has not selected before. The agent has to exploit what it already knows in order to obtain reward, but it also has to explore in order to make better action selections in the future. The dilemma is that neither exploration nor exploitation can be pursued exclusively without failing at the task. The agent must try a variety of actions and progressively favor those that appear to be best. On a stochastic task, each action must be tried many times to gain a reliable estimate its expected reward. The exploration-exploitation dilemma has been intensively studied by mathematicians for many decades. The entire issue of balancing exploration and exploitation does not even arise in supervised learning as it is usually defined.
Another key feature of reinforcement learning is that it explicitly considers the whole problem of a goal-directed agent interacting with an uncertain environment. This is in contrast with many approaches that consider subproblems without addressing how they might fit into a larger picture. For example, we have mentioned that much of machine learning research is concerned with supervised learning without explicitly specifying how such an ability would finally be useful. Other researchers have developed theories of planning with general goals, but without considering planning's role in real-time decision-making, or the question of where the predictive models necessary for planning would come from. Although these approaches have yielded many useful results, their focus on isolated subproblems is a significant limitation.
Reinforcement learning takes the opposite tack, starting with a complete, interactive, goal-seeking agent. All reinforcement learning agents have explicit goals, can sense aspects of their environments, and can choose actions to influence their environments. Moreover, it is usually assumed from the beginning that the agent has to operate despite significant uncertainty about the environment it faces. When reinforcement learning involves planning, it has to address the interplay between planning and real-time action selection, as well as the question of how environmental models are acquired and improved. When reinforcement learning involves supervised learning, it does so for specific reasons that determine which capabilities are critical and which are not. For learning research to make progress, important subproblems have to be isolated and studied, but they should be subproblems that play clear roles in complete, interactive, goal-seeking agents, even if all the details of the complete agent cannot yet be filled in.
One of the larger trends of which reinforcement learning is a part is that toward greater contact between artificial intelligence and other engineering disciplines. Not all that long ago, artificial intelligence was viewed as almost entirely separate from control theory and statistics. It had to do with logic and symbols, not numbers. Artificial intelligence was large LISP programs, not linear algebra, differential equations, or statistics. Over the last decades this view has gradually eroded. Modern artificial intelligence researchers accept statistical and control algorithms, for example, as relevant competing methods or simply as tools of their trade. The previously ignored areas lying between artificial intelligence and conventional engineering are now among the most active, including new fields such as neural networks, intelligent control, and our topic, reinforcement learning. In reinforcement learning we extend ideas from optimal control theory and stochastic approximation to address the broader and more ambitious goals of artificial intelligence.