Department of Information Technology

Reinforcement Learning: A Graduate Course (6hp)

RL.png Reinforcement Learning (RL) addresses the problem of controlling a dynamical system so as to maximize a notion of reward cumulated over time. At each time (or round), the agent selects an action, and as a result, the system state evolves. The agent observes the new state and collects a reward associated with the state transition, before deciding on the next action. Unlike classical control tasks where typically the system dynamics are completely predictable, RL is concerned with systems whose dynamics have to be learnt or with systems interacting with an uncertain environment. As time evolves, the agent gathers more data, and may improve her knowledge about the system dynamics to make better informed decisions. RL has found numerous applications, ranging from robotics, control, online services and game playing, and has received an increasing attention. Very recently, RL has solved problems in situations approaching real-world complexity, e.g., in learning human-level control for playing video and board games. These situations are however rather specific, and we are still far from systems able to learn in a wide variety of scenarios like humans do.

The course will provide an in-depth treatment of the modern theoretical tools used to devise and analyze RL algorithms. It includes an introduction to RL and to its classical algorithms such as Q-learning, and SARSA, but further presents the rationale behind the design of more recent algorithms, such as those striking optimal trade-off between exploration and exploitation (e.g. UCRL). The course also covers algorithms used in recent RL success stories, i.e., deep RL algorithms. Some basic notions in probability theory are required to follow the course.

Course Summary

The topics covered are organised as

  • L0. Preliminaries: Preliminaries.
  • L1. Introduction to Reinforcement Learning: slides day 1.
  • L2. Markov Decision Processes and Bellman's equation for finite and infinite horizon (with or without discount): slides day 2.
  • L3. RL problems. Regret, sample complexity, exploration-exploitation trade-off: slides day 3.
  • L4. First RL algorithms (e.g. Q-learning, TD-learning, SARSA). Convergence analysis: slides day 4.
  • L5. Bandit optimization: the "optimism in face of uncertainty" principle vs. posterior sampling: slides day 5.
  • L6. RL algorithms 2.0 (e.g. UCRL, Thompson Sampling, REGAL). Regret and sample complexity analysis: slides day 6.
  • L7. Scalable RL algorithms: State aggregation, function approximation (deep RL, experience replay): slides day 7.
  • L8. Examples and empirical comparison of various algorithms: slides day 8.

Course Organisation

The course is organised as an intensive course divided into two blocks. This gives the participants time to digest the first material, while still providing opportunities to ask detailed questions. Specifically

  1. General: (Tue.-Friday) 3,4,5,6 Oct.
  2. Advanced: (Tue.-Friday) 17,18,19,20 Oct.

The full schedule is here. The responsible for the course is Kristiaan Pelckmans ( ). This initiative is made possible by generous support of the centre of interdisciplinary mathematics at UU, SE ( ).

The lectures are held in Polacksbacken, house 2, floor 3, room 2347. A map to Polacksbacken is here. It takes about 20 minutes (bus 4 at bay B4, +- every 5 minutes) from the central station in Uppsala to Polacksbacken.

Course Material

This course builds upon the material revised in lec0.pdf.

The slides are here: day1, day2, day3, day4, day5, day 6, day 7, day 8.

The course is not based on a single textbook, but builds on a series of key publications in the field. Here is a preliminary list of relevant articles and books:

  1. P. Auer, T. Jaksch, and R. Ortner. Near-optimal regret bounds for reinforcement learning. In Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 22, pages 8996, 2009.
  2. A. Burnetas and M. Katehakis. Optimal adaptive policies for sequential allocation problems. Advances in Applied Mathematics, 17(2):122142, 1996.
  3. V. Mnih, K. Kavukcuoglu, D. Silver, A. A. Rusu, J. Veness, M. G. Bellemare, A. Graves, M. Riedmiller, A. K. Fidjeland, G. Ostrovski, S. Petersen, C. Beattie, A. Sadik, I. Antonoglou, H. King, D. Kumaran, D. Wierstra, S. Legg, and D. Hassabis. Human-level control through deep reinforcement learning. Nature, 2015.
  4. M. Puterman. Markov Decision Processes: Discrete Stochastic Dynamic Programming. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY, USA, 1st edition, 1994.
  5. R. Sutton and A. Barto. Introduction to Reinforcement Learning. (google.books) MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, 1st edition, 1998
  6. C. Szepesvari. Algorithms for Reinforcement Learning. Synthesis Lectures on Articial Intelligence and Machine Learning. Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2010.
  7. J. Tsitsiklis and B. Roy. An analysis of temporal-difference learning with function approximation. IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control, 1997.
  8. C. Watkins. Learning from delayed rewards. PhD thesis, University of Cambridge England, 1989.
  9. M. Wiering and M. van Otterlo. Reinforcement Learning: State-of-the-Art (google.books). Springer, 2014.

About the Lecturer

The lecturer is Alexandre Proutiere (, professor in Automatic Control at KTH, Royal Institute of Technology. He has been working intensely in online optimization and RL over the last few years, and has published his contributions in the three main conferences on the theory of machine learning (NIPS, ICML, and COLT). He is the local chair of COLT 2018, to be held in Stockholm.

Before joining KTH, Alexandre was a permanent researcher at Microsoft Research (Cambridge) from 2007 to 2011, a research engineer at France Telecom R\&D from 2000 to 2006. He received his PhD in Applied Mathematics from Ecole Polytechnique, graduated in mathematiques from Ecole Normale Superieure, and has an engineering degree from Telecom Paris. He won the ACM Sigmetrics rising star award in 2009, and received the ACM best papers awards at Sigmetrics 2004 and 2010, and Mobihoc 2009. He holds an ERC consolidator grant on bandit optimization and its applications.

Updated  2017-10-22 10:44:44 by Kristiaan Pelckmans.