I have a hard time grasping the need for policy optimization and say the log kernel trick/score function. Instead of using the score function, why do you not simply optimize for the highest reward and choose $$\pi^*= \max(\text{all actions with discounted rewards})?$$

I am learning about reinforcement learning and have grasped the basics of value and policy iteration. I would appreciate if answers are intuitive (without math, if possible).


1 Answer 1


Instead of using the score function, why do you not simply optimize for the highest reward and choose Policy*= Max(All actions with discounted rewards)?

You do not have the information in order to take that maximum at the start of learning. In order to know the expected return or discounted sum of future rewards, you need to of measured it whilst using an already optimal policy.

Iterating towards this goal with a policy based on best estimates so far, refining those estimates given the current policy (by acting in that policy and sampling results), then refining the policy based on better estimate is essentially how action-value-based methods work, such as Monte Carlo Control, SARSA or Q Learning. These are all RL solvers, but are not always the most efficient for a given problem.

The score function helps to calculate a sampled measure of the gradient of the expected return of a parametric policy with respect to its parameters. Which means you can use it to perform stochastic gradient ascent directly on a policy, increasing its performance (on average) without necessarily needing to know the action values. The REINFORCE algorithm does not use action values at all. However, algorithms which do, such as Actor-Critic, can be better, and still maintain benefits compared to using a pure action-value approach.

Which is better? It depends on the problem. Sometimes it is more efficient to express a policy as a parametric function of the state. A common example of this is when there are many actions, or action space is continuous. Getting action-value estimates for a large number of actions, and then finding the maximising action over them, is computationally expensive. In those scenarios, it will be more efficient to use a policy gradient method and the score function is needed to estimate the gradient.

Another common scenario where a direct policy refinement can be better is when the ideal policy is stochastic. E.g. in scissor/paper/stone game. Expressing this as maximising over action values is not stable - the agent will pick one action, until that is exploited against it, then pick another etc. Whilst an agent using policy gradient and a softmax action choice could learn optimal ratios in an environment like scissor/paper/stone - two such agents competing should converge in theory to the Nash equilibrium of equiprobable actions.

Conversely, sometimes action-value methods will be the more efficient choice. There might be a simpler relationship between optimal action value and state, than between policy and state. A good example of this might be a maze solver (with reward -1 per time step). The mapping between action value and state is just related to the distance to the exit. The mapping between policy and state has no obvious relation to the state, except when expressed as taking the action that minimises that distance.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! It explains more, I will look more into how the gradient is sampled to make the policy accent possible. Is the information sampled for the direct policy refinement similar to say a one step TD look ahead, or how do you obtain the gradient for the accent ? $\endgroup$
    – Marcus
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 10:40
  • $\begingroup$ The simplest sampled policy gradient is the return $G_t$ times discounting factor $\gamma^t$ times the score function or $\gamma^t G_t \nabla_{\theta} ln(\pi(A_t|S_t, \theta))$. You can measure $G_t$ from an episode. The score function is the hard part, as you need to calculate it depending on your parametric function. If you have a specific policy function in mind (e.g. neural network with softmax action choice) and don't know how to do it for that, then I suggest ask a separate question. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 11:26
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks again :) And Return Gt is just the score shown from example an atari game? trying to understand it from the basic level and up to the the theory, such as with value iteration and the basic gridworld example. Probably it seems the next thing to do is, look into Maximum likelihood estimation to understand this further. $\endgroup$
    – Marcus
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ I confused the return Gt which is the discouted sum of all the folowing rewards in that episode with R that is the retrun for that state, and the Q-value which is the return of the optimal action under the optimal policy. $\endgroup$
    – Marcus
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding the difference between the policy optimization and value iteration methods. For me it dawned that policy optimization is like directly parameterizing to the actions with the loss/objective function, while value iteration more parameterises to the value of each state. It is like either parameterize the outcome of what each movement of the N64 controllers does directly while playing Mario Kart, or in the value iteration case parameterize towards the value of each game frame for the objective function. $\endgroup$
    – Marcus
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 19:02

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