Neuroevolution is a Competitive Alternative to Reinforcement Learning for Skill Discovery

Felix Chalumeau | Raphael Boige | Bryan Lim 1 | Valentin Macé | Maxime Allard 1 | Arthur Flajolet | Antoine Cully 1 | Thomas Pierrot

1 Imperial College London



Deep Reinforcement Learning (RL) has emerged as a powerful paradigm for training neural policies to solve complex control tasks. However, these policies tend to be overfit to the exact specifications of the task and environment they were trained on, and thus do not perform well when conditions deviate slightly or when composed hierarchically to solve even more complex tasks. Recent work has shown that training a mixture of policies, as opposed to a single one, that are driven to explore different regions of the state-action space can address this shortcoming by generating a diverse set of behaviors, referred to as skills, that can be collectively used to great effect in adaptation tasks or for hierarchical planning. This is typically realized by including a diversity term – often derived from information theory – in the objective function optimized by RL. However these approaches often require careful hyperparameter tuning to be effective. In this work, we demonstrate that less widely-used neuroevolution methods, specifically Quality Diversity (QD), are a competitive alternative to information-theory-augmented RL for skill discovery. Through an extensive empirical evaluation comparing eight state-of-the-art algorithms (four flagship algorithms from each line of work) on the basis of (i) metrics directly evaluating the skills’ diversity, (ii) the skills’ performance on adaptation tasks, and (iii) the skills’ performance when used as primitives for hierarchical planning; QD methods are found to provide equal, and sometimes improved, performance whilst being less sensitive to hyperparameters and more scalable. As no single method is found to provide near-optimal performance across all environments, there is a rich scope for further research which we support by proposing future directions and providing optimized open-source implementations.