Softmax Policy Gradient Methods Can Take Exponential Time to Converge

Gen Li , Yuting Wei , Yuejie Chi , Yuantao Gu , Yuxin Chen

[Proceedings link] [PDF]

Session: Bandits, RL and Control 2 (A)

Session Chair: Sattar Vakili

Poster: Poster Session 3

Abstract: The softmax policy gradient (PG) method, which performs gradient ascent under softmax policy parameterization, is arguably one of the de facto implementations of policy optimization in modern reinforcement learning. For $\gamma$-discounted infinite-horizon tabular Markov decision processes (MDPs), remarkable progress has recently been achieved towards establishing global convergence of softmax PG methods in finding a near-optimal policy. However, prior results fall short of delineating clear dependencies of convergence rates on salient parameters such as the cardinality of the state space $\mathcal{S}$ and the effective horizon $\frac{1}{1-\gamma}$, both of which could be excessively large. In this paper, we deliver a pessimistic message regarding the iteration complexity of softmax PG methods, despite assuming access to exact gradient computation. Specifically, we demonstrate that the softmax PG method with stepsize $\eta$ can take \[ \frac{1}{\eta} |\mathcal{S}|^{2^{\Omega\big(\frac{1}{1-\gamma}\big)}} ~\text{iterations} \] to converge, even in the presence of a benign policy initialization and an initial state distribution amenable to exploration (so that the distribution mismatch coefficient is not exceedingly large). This is accomplished by characterizing the algorithmic dynamics over a carefully-constructed MDP containing only three actions. Our exponential lower bound hints at the necessity of carefully adjusting update rules or enforcing proper regularization in accelerating PG methods.

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