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Oral Session

Oral 6B RL

La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom A-C (level 2)

Thu 14 Dec. 13:20 - 13:35 PST

When Do Transformers Shine in RL? Decoupling Memory from Credit Assignment

Tianwei Ni · Michel Ma · Benjamin Eysenbach · Pierre-Luc Bacon

Reinforcement learning (RL) algorithms face two distinct challenges: learning effective representations of past and present observations, and determining how actions influence future returns. Both challenges involve modeling long-term dependencies. The Transformer architecture has been very successful to solve problems that involve long-term dependencies, including in the RL domain. However, the underlying reason for the strong performance of Transformer-based RL methods remains unclear: is it because they learn effective memory, or because they perform effective credit assignment? After introducing formal definitions of memory length and credit assignment length, we design simple configurable tasks to measure these distinct quantities. Our empirical results reveal that Transformers can enhance the memory capability of RL algorithms, scaling up to tasks that require memorizing observations $1500$ steps ago. However, Transformers do not improve long-term credit assignment. In summary, our results provide an explanation for the success of Transformers in RL, while also highlighting an important area for future research and benchmark design. Our code is open-sourced at

Thu 14 Dec. 13:35 - 13:50 PST

Bridging RL Theory and Practice with the Effective Horizon

Cassidy Laidlaw · Stuart J Russell · Anca Dragan

Deep reinforcement learning (RL) works impressively in some environments and fails catastrophically in others. Ideally, RL theory should be able to provide an understanding of why this is, i.e. bounds predictive of practical performance. Unfortunately, current theory does not quite have this ability. We compare standard deep RL algorithms to prior sample complexity bounds by introducing a new dataset, BRIDGE. It consists of 155 MDPs from common deep RL benchmarks, along with their corresponding tabular representations, which enables us to exactly compute instance-dependent bounds. We find that prior bounds do not correlate well with when deep RL succeeds vs. fails, but discover a surprising property that does. When actions with the highest Q-values under the random policy also have the highest Q-values under the optimal policy—i.e., when it is optimal to act greedily with respect to the random's policy Q function—deep RL tends to succeed; when they don't, deep RL tends to fail. We generalize this property into a new complexity measure of an MDP that we call the effective horizon, which roughly corresponds to how many steps of lookahead search would be needed in that MDP in order to identify the next optimal action, when leaf nodes are evaluated with random rollouts. Using BRIDGE, we show that the effective horizon-based bounds are more closely reflective of the empirical performance of PPO and DQN than prior sample complexity bounds across four metrics. We also show that, unlike existing bounds, the effective horizon can predict the effects of using reward shaping or a pre-trained exploration policy. Our code and data are available at

Thu 14 Dec. 13:50 - 14:05 PST

Direct Preference Optimization: Your Language Model is Secretly a Reward Model

Rafael Rafailov · Archit Sharma · Eric Mitchell · Christopher D Manning · Stefano Ermon · Chelsea Finn

While large-scale unsupervised language models (LMs) learn broad world knowledge and some reasoning skills, achieving precise control of their behavior is difficult due to the completely unsupervised nature of their training. Existing methods for gaining such steerability collect human labels of the relative quality of model generations and fine-tune the unsupervised LM to align with these preferences, often with reinforcement learning from human feedback (RLHF). However, RLHF is a complex and often unstable procedure, first fitting a reward model that reflects the human preferences, and then fine-tuning the large unsupervised LM using reinforcement learning to maximize this estimated reward without drifting too far from the original model. In this paper, we leverage a mapping between reward functions and optimal policies to show that this constrained reward maximization problem can be optimized exactly with a single stage of policy training, essentially solving a classification problem on the human preference data. The resulting algorithm, which we call Direct Preference Optimization (DPO), is stable, performant, and computationally lightweight, eliminating the need for fitting a reward model, sampling from the LM during fine-tuning, or performing significant hyperparameter tuning. Our experiments show that DPO can fine-tune LMs to align with human preferences as well as or better than existing methods. Notably, fine-tuning with DPO exceeds RLHF's ability to control sentiment of generations and improves response quality in summarization and single-turn dialogue while being substantially simpler to implement and train.

Thu 14 Dec. 14:05 - 14:20 PST

MetaBox: A Benchmark Platform for Meta-Black-Box Optimization with Reinforcement Learning

Zeyuan Ma · Hongshu Guo · Jiacheng Chen · Zhenrui Li · Guojun Peng · Yue-Jiao Gong · Yining Ma · Zhiguang Cao

Recently, Meta-Black-Box Optimization with Reinforcement Learning (MetaBBO-RL) has showcased the power of leveraging RL at the meta-level to mitigate manual fine-tuning of low-level black-box optimizers. However, this field is hindered by the lack of a unified benchmark. To fill this gap, we introduce MetaBox, the first benchmark platform expressly tailored for developing and evaluating MetaBBO-RL methods. MetaBox offers a flexible algorithmic template that allows users to effortlessly implement their unique designs within the platform. Moreover, it provides a broad spectrum of over 300 problem instances, collected from synthetic to realistic scenarios, and an extensive library of 19 baseline methods, including both traditional black-box optimizers and recent MetaBBO-RL methods. Besides, MetaBox introduces three standardized performance metrics, enabling a more thorough assessment of the methods. In a bid to illustrate the utility of MetaBox for facilitating rigorous evaluation and in-depth analysis, we carry out a wide-ranging benchmarking study on existing MetaBBO-RL methods. Our MetaBox is open-source and accessible at: