Near-optimal Conservative Exploration in Reinforcement Learning under Episode-wise Constraints

Donghao Li, Ruiquan Huang, Cong Shen, Jing Yang

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


This paper investigates conservative exploration in reinforcement learning where the performance of the learning agent is guaranteed to be above a certain threshold throughout the learning process. It focuses on the tabular episodic Markov Decision Process (MDP) setting that has finite states and actions. With the knowledge of an existing safe baseline policy, an algorithm termed as StepMix is proposed to balance the exploitation and exploration while ensuring that the conservative constraint is never violated in each episode with high probability. StepMix features a unique design of a mixture policy that adaptively and smoothly interpolates between the baseline policy and the optimistic policy. Theoretical analysis shows that StepMix achieves near-optimal regret order as in the constraint-free setting, indicating that obeying the stringent episode-wise conservative constraint does not compromise the learning performance. Besides, a randomization-based EpsMix algorithm is also proposed and shown to achieve the same performance as StepMix. The algorithm design and theoretical analysis are further extended to the setting where the baseline policy is not given a priori but must be learned from an offline dataset, and it is proved that similar conservative guarantee and regret can be achieved if the offline dataset is sufficiently large. Experiment results corroborate the theoretical analysis and demonstrate the effectiveness of the proposed conservative exploration strategies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)20221-20252
Number of pages32
JournalProceedings of Machine Learning Research
StatePublished - 2023
Event40th International Conference on Machine Learning, ICML 2023 - Honolulu, United States
Duration: Jul 23 2023Jul 29 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Software
  • Control and Systems Engineering
  • Statistics and Probability

Cite this