Dissertation Defense

Exploring In-Context Reinforcement Learning

Ethan BrooksPh.D. Candidate

Virtual Event: Zoom

Abstract: In-Context Learning describes a form of learning that occurs when a model accumulates information in its context or memory. For example, an LSTM can rapidly adapt to a novel task as input/target exemplars are fed into it. While in-context learning of this kind is not a new discovery, recent work has demonstrated that large foundation models acquire this ability when they are trained on large quantities of semi-supervised data, without the sophisticated (but often unstable) meta-objectives proposed by many earlier papers. In this thesis we explore several algorithms which specialize in-context learning based on semi-supervised methods to the reinforcement learning (RL) setting. In particular, we explore three approaches to in-context learning of value (expected cumulative discounted reward).

The first approach demonstrates a method for implementing policy iteration, a classic RL algorithm, using a pre-trained large language model (LLM). We use the LLM to generate planning rollouts and extract monte-carlo estimates of value from them. We demonstrate the method on several small, text-based domains and present evidence that the LLM can generalize to unseen states, a key requirement of learning in non-tabular settings.

The second approach imports many of the ideas of the first, but trains a transformer model directly on offline RL data. We incorporate Algorithm Distillation (AD), another method for in-context reinforcement learning that directly distills the improvement operator from data that includes behavior ranging from random to optimal. Our method combines the benefits of AD with the policy iteration method proposed in our previous work and demonstrates benefits in performance and generalization.

Our third approach proposes a new method for estimating value. Like the previous methods, this one implements a form of policy iteration, but eschews monte-carlo rollouts for a new approach to estimating value. We train a network to estimate Bellman updates and iteratively feed its outputs back into itself until the estimate converges. We find that this iterative approach improves the capability of the value estimates to generalize and mitigates some of the instability of other offline methods.


CSE Graduate Programs Office

Faculty Host

Prof. Satinder Baveja and Prof. Richard Lewis