Apparently, in the Q-learning algorithm, the Q values are not updated according to the "current policy", but according to a "greedy policy". Why is that the case? I think this is related to the fact that Q-learning is off-policy, but I am also not familiar with this concept.


1 Answer 1


Short answer

The Q values are updated using a greedy policy because, in the Q-learning algorithm, the $\max$ operator is used to determine the target, which is denoted by

$$\color{green}{R_{t+1}} + \gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$$

Intuitively, the $\max$ operator is used because we assume that the target policy (the policy associated with the optimal value function that we want to learn) takes a greedy action, which is defined, in this context, as the action associated with the highest Q value: $\color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ means that we are selecting the $Q$ value, associated with the (next) state $S_{t+1}$, which corresponds to the action $a$, such that $Q(S_{t+1}, a)$ is the highest (with respect to other possible actions from $S_{t+1}$).

Note that the $Q$ function receives as input a state and an action. So, for each state $s$, we have an action (among all possible actions, $a_1, a_2, \dots$, which we can take from the state $s$), denote it by $a^*$, such that $Q(s, a^*) > Q(s, a_1)$, $Q(s, a^*) > Q(s, a_2)$, etc. In the expression $\color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$, we are basically selecting $Q(s, a^*)$ for $s = S_{t+1}$.

More explanations

To explain all the components of this target, I will explain the Q-learning algorithm. Hopefully, after this explanation, you will be able to understand why Q-learning uses the greedy policy to update the Q values and why it is an off-policy algorithm (which is, IMHO, a quite unintuitive and confusing term to describe what off-policy actually means).

How does Q-learning work?

Here's the Q-learning algorithm

enter image description here

The Q-learning algorithm estimates a value function, known as the Q-function, associated with a policy $\pi$. Intuitively, it does that by simulating an agent which takes actions in the environment, observes the impact of those actions on the environment in terms of the received rewards and the new states where the agent ends up in after taking those actions. Meanwhile, during this exploration of the environment, it attempts to estimate the optimal $Q$ function (i.e. the value function associated with the optimal policy, which, if followed, will give the agent the highest amount of reward in the long run, aka return).

Q-learning proceeds in episodes. So, initially, you need to pass the number of episodes as input. You can think of episodes as iterations (like in any iterative optimisation algorithm). However, in the context of RL, an episode is a little bit more specific: the start and end of an episode are associated with specific states of the environment: the episode starts when the agent is in a starting state $S_0$ (which can be sampled from a probability distribution over $S_0$, if there is more than one) and ends when it is in a terminal state.

In the pseudocode above, at the beginning of each episode, we initialise $t=0$, where $t$ represents the time step of a specific episode.

Inner/Episode loop

We then have the following loop, which terminates when the agent reaches a terminal state:

enter image description here

So, at each episode, we run the loop above. The block of code inside this loop contains the main logic of the Q-learning algorithm.

Behaviour policy

On each iteration of this inner loop, the agent chooses an action $A_t$ (the action at time step $t$ of the current episode) using a policy (which is known, in this context, as the behaviour policy, which should ensure that all states are sufficiently visited, in order for tabular Q-learning to converge). In this case, the $\epsilon$-greedy policy is used.

How does this $\epsilon$-greedy policy work?

If you look at the pseudocode above, $\epsilon$ is initialised at beginning of each episode. In the pseudocode above, $\epsilon$ can change from episode to episode, but assume, for simplicity, that, at every episode, it is a fixed small number (e.g. $0.01$). The statement

Choose action $A_t$ using policy derived from $Q$ (e.g., $\epsilon$-greedy)

means that, with probability $1 - \epsilon$, the greedy action is chosen, and, with probability $\epsilon$, a random action is taken.

What is the greedy action in this case?

In this case, the greedy action is the action, in the current state $S_t$, which is associated with the highest Q value (given the current estimate of the Q value). It is exactly the same action as the action $a^*$ (as I explained above). The difference is that, in this case, we choose $A_t$ using the $\epsilon$-greedy policy: so, most of the time, we choose the greedy action, but, sometimes, we can also choose a random action.

The agent then executes the just chosen action $A_t$ in the environment, and it observes the impact of this action on the environment, which is determined by how the environment responds to this action: the response consists of a reward, $R_{t+1}$, and a next state, $S_{t+1}$.

To recapitulate, the agent chooses an action using the $\epsilon$-greedy policy, executes this action on the environment, and it observes the response (that is, a reward and a next state) of the environment to this action. This is the part of the Q-learning algorithm where the agent interacts with the environment in order to gather some info about it, so as to be able to estimate the Q function.

Q-learning update

After that, the agent can update its estimate of the Q function using the following update rule

$$\color{orange}{Q(S_t, A_t)} \leftarrow \color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)} + \alpha ([\color{green}{R_{t+1}} + \gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}] - \color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)})$$

where $S_t$ is the current state (of the current episode) the agent is in, $A_t$ is the action chosen using the $\epsilon$-greedy policy (as described above), and $S_{t+1}$ and $R_{t+1}$ are respectively the next state and rewards, which, collectively, are the response of the environment to the just taken action $A_t$.

So, how is the estimate of this $Q$ function updated?

First of all, I would like to note that, if you look at the beginning of the pseudocode above, $Q(s, a)$ is initialized arbitrarily for all states $s \in \mathcal{S}$ and for all actions $a \in \mathcal{A}$: it can e.g. be initialised to $0$. $Q(s, a)$ can e.g. be implemented as a matrix (or 2-dimensional array) $M \in \mathbb{R}^{|\mathcal{S}| \times |\mathcal{A}|}$, where $M[s, a] = Q(s, a)$, $|\mathcal{S}|$ is the number of states in your problem and $|\mathcal{A}|$ the number of actions.

Furthermore, note that the symbol $\leftarrow$ means "assignment" (like assignment to a variable, in the context of programming). So, in the update rule above, we are assigning to $\color{orange}{Q(S_t, A_t)}$ (which will be the next or updated estimate of the Q value for the current state $S_t$ and the just taken action from that state $A_t$) the value $\color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)} + \alpha (\color{green}{R_{t+1}} + \gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)} - \color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)})$. Let's break this value down.

$\color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)}$ (on the right side of the assignment) is the estimate of the Q value for the state $S_t$ and action $A_t$ before the assignment. So, we are summing $\color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)}$ and $\alpha (\color{green}{R_{t+1}} + \gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)} - \color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)})$, and then we assign it to $\color{orange}{Q(S_t, A_t)}$ again.

$\color{green}{R_{t+1}} + \gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ is what is often called the target. Q-learning is a temporal-difference (TD) algorithm, and TD algorithms update estimates of the value or action-value functions based on the difference between the current estimate, in the case of Q-learning it is denoted by $\color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)}$ (on the right side of the $\leftarrow$), and a "target". So, in the Q-learning algorithm, $\color{green}{R_{t+1}} + \gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ is the target. We can roughly think of it as "the value that $\color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)}$ should have been". So, in a certain way, we are performing supervised learning, where $\color{green}{R_{t+1}} + \gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ would be the ground-truth label and $\color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)}$ the current estimate, and so $[\color{green}{R_{t+1}} + \gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}] - \color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)}$ would be the error (or loss): in fact, it is often called the TD error. However, note that this is not really supervised learning, because $\color{green}{R_{t+1}} + \gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ is not a ground-truth (it is partially an estimate, because of the part $\gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)} $, and it partially a ground-truth, because of $\color{green}{R_{t+1}}$).

To recapitulate, $\color{green}{R_{t+1}} + \gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ is the target, $\color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)}$ is the current estimate, and $[\color{green}{R_{t+1}} + \gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}] - \color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)}$ is the TD error. We are thus summing the "error" (weighted by the hyper-parameter $\alpha$, which is, in this case, often called the learning rate) and the current estimate $\color{red}{Q(S_t, A_t)}$ in order to produce the new estimate $\color{orange}{Q(S_t, A_t)}$.

In the target, you can see that we are multiplying the $\color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ by $\gamma$. This is a hyper-parameter (a parameter which often needs to be chosen by the programmer before the algorithm is executed), known as the discount factor. It controls the contribution of $\color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ to the target: that is, how much of $\color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ we want to include in the target. Recall that I've just said above that the target is composed of the reward $\color{green}{R_{t+1}}$ (which is a ground-truth or real-world experience, because it is directly received from the environment) and $\color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ (which actually uses an estimate of the Q function, that is, it uses $Q(S_{t+1}, a)$). So, $\gamma$ controls the contribution of an estimate to the ground-truth.

As I said at the beginning of this answer, $\color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ can be thought of as the $Q$ value associated with the next state $S_{t+1}$ (which was observed by the agent after he has taken the action $A_t$) and associated with the action $a$, such that $Q(S_{t+1}, a)$ is the highest among all other possible actions from state $S_{t+1}$. In other words, $\color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ can be thought of the estimate of the Q value associated with the next state $S_{t+1}$ and the greedy action taken from that same state.

Q-learning is off-policy

Note that, when we update the value function, the agent is not really taking actions in the environment (the only action taken is $A_t$, and it was taken, using the behavior policy, before the update!). Nonetheless, people often call Q-learning an off-policy algorithm because

  1. It uses the $\epsilon$-greedy policy to interact with the environment (aka a behavior policy). In this case, actions are really taken, and the responses of the environment are really produced, observed, and used to update estimates of the $Q$ function.

  2. It uses a target that is based on an estimate which is greedy (i.e. it uses $\color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$).

Given that Q-learning uses estimates of the form $\color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$, Q-learning is often considered to be performing updates to the Q values, as if those Q values were associated with the greedy policy, that is, the policy that always chooses the action associated with highest Q value. So, you will often hear that Q-learning finds a target policy (i.e. the policy that is derived from the last estimate of the Q function) that is greedy (so, usually, different from the behavior policy).

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Small note: start and end of episodes do not necessarily have to be associated with specific states. In theory we can have a probability distribution over initial states $S_0$, although in practice the most common case certainly is that the starting state is always the same. It is relatively common that in practice that there are many different states that can all end the episode, though I believe that is already consistent with what you wrote :) $\endgroup$
    – Dennis Soemers
    Feb 13, 2019 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ @nbro: Thanks for your answer. I have a couple of questions to it as several things are unclear. 1) How can we actually calculate the max Q( S(t+1), a)? You write "We can roughly think of it as "the value that Q(St,At) should have been"". What is exactly meat by that? How can we know, what value it should have been? 2) Can you give me an example on how the Q-values are updated in each iteration (or a link where an example is explained in a comprehensive way)? 3) You claim that Q-learning used e-greedy policy for taking the actions and greedy policy for updating. Can other policies be used? $\endgroup$
    – PeterBe
    Dec 9, 2021 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ 4) If we initialise all Q(s, a) to 0, will then not every max Q (s(t+1), a) be also 0 in each iteration? 5) If we always use a greedy policy to udate the Q values, I would assume that the chances are quite high that we will be stuck in a local (but not global) optimum. Why can we for example not also use the e-greedy policy for updating the Q values? $\endgroup$
    – PeterBe
    Dec 9, 2021 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterBe I am not sure I understand your first question. $\max Q( S(t+1), a)$ is just the maximum state-action value function with respect to $a$. For example, say you have a function $f: \{1, 2 \} \rightarrow \{10, 5\}$, and define it like this: $f(1) = 10$ and $f(2) = 5$, then $\max_x f(x) = 10$ and $\text{argmax}_x f(x) = 1$. To answer your second question, remember that, during learning, $Q$ is an estimate of the true value function $q^*$. $\color{green}{R_{t+1}} + \gamma \color{blue}{\max_{a}Q(S_{t+1}, a)}$ is an estimate of the true value $q^*(S_t, A_t)$. $\endgroup$
    – nbro
    Dec 9, 2021 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ To answer your 3rd question, we don't know $q^*(S_t, A_t)$. @PeterBe This post is already too long and I already spent too much effort on it, so I don't plan to give you a step-by-step explanation of Q-learning, because that was not even the question originally. I explained Q-learning here, but I should not have done that. I recommend that you ask your other questions in separate posts, but make sure to search for answers on our site first, because I think some of your questions are already answered by my post above and other posts on the site. Please, ask only one question per post! $\endgroup$
    – nbro
    Dec 9, 2021 at 17:02

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