Tutorial on Model-Based Methods in Reinforcement Learning

By Igor Mordatch and Jessica Hamrick

Presented at International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML) 2020


This tutorial presents a broad overview of the field of model-based reinforcement learning (MBRL), with a particular emphasis on deep methods. MBRL methods utilize a model of the environment to make decisions—as opposed to treating the environment as a black box—and present unique opportunities and challenges beyond model-free RL. We discuss methods for learning transition and reward models, ways in which those models can effectively be used to make better decisions, and the relationship between planning and learning. We also highlight ways that models of the world can be leveraged beyond the typical RL setting, and what insights might be drawn from human cognition when designing future MBRL systems.


The field of reinforcement learning has produced significantly impressive results in recent years, but has largely focused on model-free methods. However, the community recognizes limitations of purely model-free methods, from high sample complexity, need of sampling unsafe outcomes, to stability and reproducibility issues. By contrast, model-based methods have been under-explored (but growing fast) in the machine learning community despite being very influential in robotics, engineering, and cognitive and neural sciences. They provide a distinct set of advantages and challenges as well as complementary mathematical tools. The aim of this tutorial is to make model-based methods more recognized and accessible to the machine learning community. Given recent successful applications of model-based planning, such as AlphaGo, we believe there is timely demand for a comprehensive understanding of this topic. By the end of the tutorial, the audience should gain:

  • Mathematical background to read and follow up with the literature on the topic.

  • An intuitive understanding of the algorithms involved (and have access to lightweight example code they can use and experiment with).

  • Awareness of the tradeoffs and challenges involved in applying model-based methods.

  • Appreciation for diversity of problems in which model-based reasoning can be applied.

  • Understanding of how these methods fit in the broader context of reinforcement learning and theories of decision-making as well as relationship to model-free methods.

Target audience and required background

This tutorial will be accessible to the general machine learning audience, but specifically targeted at the following groups with their own specific learning goals:

  • Reinforcement learning researchers and practitioners who primarily worked with model-free methods and are looking to acquire a new set of techniques and background to complement or address challenges they are currently facing.

  • Supervised or unsupervised learning researchers who are looking to learn how their work can be applicable in reinforcement learning setting.

  • Cognitive science researchers who may be familiar with the core ideas of the topic, but are looking to learn about algorithms and implementation guidelines that are practical in complex high-dimensional settings.

  • Robotics researchers and practitioners that are familiar with model-based control, but are looking for background and advice on how to unite them with learning methods.

Familiarity with basic supervised learning methods will be expected, and some familiarity with reinforcement learning formulation and model-free methods will be beneficial but not required.


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Questions or Feedback?

Contact us at jhamrick@ or imordatch@ (followed by google.com)