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Finite Sample Analysis of Mean-Volatility Actor-Critic for Risk-Averse Reinforcement Learning

Khaled Eldowa · Lorenzo Bisi · Marcello Restelli

Abstract: The goal in the standard reinforcement learning problem is to find a policy that optimizes the expected return. However, such an objective is not adequate in a lot of real-life applications, like finance, where controlling the uncertainty of the outcome is imperative. The mean-volatility objective penalizes, through a tunable parameter, policies with high variance of the per-step reward. An interesting property of this objective is that it admits simple linear Bellman equations that resemble, up to a reward transformation, those of the risk-neutral case. However, the required reward transformation is policy-dependent, and requires the (usually unknown) expected return of the used policy. In this work, we propose two general methods for policy evaluation under the mean-volatility objective: the direct method and the factored method. We then extend recent results for finite sample analysis in the risk-neutral actor-critic setting to the mean-volatility case. Our analysis shows that the sample complexity to attain an $\epsilon$-accurate stationary point is the same as that of the risk-neutral version, using either policy evaluation method for training the critic. Finally, we carry out experiments to test the proposed methods in a simple environment that exhibits some trade-off between optimality, in expectation, and uncertainty of outcome.

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