Where Did My Optimum Go?: An Empirical Analysis of Gradient Descent Optimization in Policy Gradient Methods

European Workshop on Reinforcement Learning

By: Peter Henderson, Joshua Romoff, Joelle Pineau


Recent analyses of certain gradient descent optimization methods have shown that performance can degrade in some settings – such as with stochasticity or implicit momentum. In deep reinforcement learning (Deep RL), such optimization methods are often used for training neural networks via the temporal difference error or policy gradient. As an agent improves over time, the optimization target changes and thus the loss landscape (and local optima) change. Due to the failure modes of those methods, the ideal choice of optimizer for Deep RL remains unclear. As such, we provide an empirical analysis of the effects that a wide range of gradient descent optimizers and their hyperparameters have on policy gradient methods, a subset of Deep RL algorithms, for benchmark continuous control tasks. We find that adaptive optimizers have a narrow window of effective learning rates, diverging in other cases, and that the effectiveness of momentum varies depending on the properties of the environment. Our analysis suggests that there is significant interplay between the dynamics of the environment and Deep RL algorithm properties which aren’t necessarily accounted for by traditional adaptive gradient methods. We provide suggestions for optimal settings of current methods and further lines of research based on our findings.