Reinforcement learning is a type of machine learning in which a computer learns to perform a task through repeated trial-and-error interactions with a dynamic environment.

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SwissCognitiveThis learning approach enables the computer to make a series of decisions that maximize a reward metric for the task without human intervention and without being explicitly programmed to achieve the task.

To better understand reinforcement learning, let’s look at a real-world equivalent situation. Figure 1 shows a general representation of training a dog using reinforcement learning.

The goal of reinforcement learning in this case is to train the dog (agent) to complete a task within an environment, which includes the surroundings of the dog as well as the trainer. First, the trainer issues a command or cue, which the dog observes (observation). The dog then responds by taking an action. If the action is close to the desired behavior, the trainer will likely provide a reward, such as a food treat or a toy; otherwise, no reward or a negative reward will be provided. At the beginning of training, the dog will likely take more random actions like rolling over when the command given is “sit,” as it is trying to associate specific observations with actions and rewards. This association, or mapping, between observations and actions is called policy. From the dog’s perspective, the ideal case would be one in which it would respond correctly to every cue, so that it gets as many treats as possible. So, the whole meaning of reinforcement learning training is to “tune” the dog’s policy so that it learns the desired behaviors that will maximize some reward. After training is complete, the dog should be able to observe the owner and take the appropriate action, for example, sitting when commanded to “sit” by using the internal policy it has developed. By this point, treats are welcome but shouldn’t be necessary (theoretically speaking!).

Based on the dog training example, consider the task of parking a vehicle using an automated driving system (Figure 2). The goal of this task is for the vehicle computer (agent) to park the vehicle in the correct parking spot with the right orientation. Like the dog training case, the environment here is everything outside the agent and could include the dynamics of the vehicle, other vehicles that may be nearby, weather conditions, and so on. During training, the agent uses readings from sensors such as cameras, GPS, and lidar (observations) to generate steering, braking, and acceleration commands (actions). To learn how to generate the correct actions from the observations (policy tuning), the agent repeatedly tries to park the vehicle using a trial-and-error process. A reward signal can be provided to evaluate the goodness of a trial and to guide the learning process.

In the dog training example, training is happening inside the dog’s brain. In the autonomous parking example, training is supervised by a training algorithm. The training algorithm is responsible for tuning the agent’s policy based on the collected sensor readings, actions, and rewards. After training is complete, the vehicle’s computer should be able to park using only the tuned policy and sensor readings. […]


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