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The Paradox of Choice: On the Role of Attention in Hierarchical Reinforcement Learning
Andrei Nica · Khimya Khetarpal · Doina Precup

Decision-making AI agents are often faced with two important challenges: the depth of the planning horizon, and the branching factor due to having many choices. Hierarchical reinforcement learning methods aim to solve the first problem, by providing shortcuts that skip over multiple time steps. To cope with the breadth, it is desirable to restrict the agent's attention at each step to a reasonable number of possible choices. The concept of affordances (Gibson, 1977) suggests that only certain actions are feasible in certain states. In this work, we first characterize "affordances" as a "hard" attention mechanism that strictly limits the available choices of temporally extended options. We then investigate the role of hard versus soft attention in training data collection, abstract value learning in long-horizon tasks, and handling a growing number of choices. To this end, we present an online, model-free algorithm to learn affordances that can be used to further learn subgoal options. Finally, we identify and empirically demonstrate the settings in which the "paradox of choice" arises, i.e. when having fewer but more meaningful choices improves the learning speed and performance of a reinforcement learning agent.

Author Information

Andrei Nica (Politehnica University of Bucharest)
Khimya Khetarpal (McGill University, Mila Montreal)
Doina Precup (McGill University / Mila / DeepMind Montreal)

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