Deep Neuroevolution: Genetic Algorithms Are a Competitive Alternative for Training Deep Neural Networks for Reinforcement Learning


    Deep artificial neural networks (DNNs) are typically trained via gradient-based learning algorithms, namely backpropagation. Evolution strategies (ES) can rival backprop-based algorithms such as Q-learning and policy gradients on challenging deep reinforcement learning (RL) problems. However, ES can be considered a gradient-based algorithm because it performs stochastic gradient descent via an operation similar to a finite-difference approximation of the gradient. That raises the question of whether non-gradient-based evolutionary algorithms can work at DNN scales. Here we demonstrate they can: we evolve the weights of a DNN with a simple, gradient-free, population-based genetic algorithm (GA) and it performs well on hard deep RL problems, including Atari and humanoid locomotion. The Deep GA successfully evolves networks with over four million free parameters, the largest neural networks ever evolved with a traditional evolutionary algorithm. These results (1) expand our sense of the scale at which GAs can operate, (2) suggest intriguingly that in some cases following the gradient is not the best choice for optimizing performance, and (3) make immediately available the multitude of neuroevolution techniques that improve performance. We demonstrate the latter by showing that combining DNNs with novelty search, which encourages exploration on tasks with deceptive or sparse reward functions, can solve a high-dimensional problem on which reward-maximizing algorithms (e.g.\ DQN, A3C, ES, and the GA) fail. Additionally, the Deep GA is faster than ES, A3C, and DQN (it can train Atari in ∼4 hours on one desktop or ∼1 hour distributed on 720 cores), and enables a state-of-the-art, up to 10,000-fold compact encoding technique.


    Uber AI


    Felipe Petroski Such, Vashisht Madhavan, Edoardo Conti, Joel Lehman, Kenneth O. Stanley, Jeff Clune


    Deep RL @ NeurIPS 2018

    Full Paper

    ‘Deep Neuroevolution: Genetic Algorithms Are a Competitive Alternative for Training Deep Neural Networks for Reinforcement Learning’ (PDF at arXiv)

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    Felipe Petroski Such
    Felipe Petroski Such is a research scientist focusing on deep neuroevolution, reinforcement learning, and HPC. Prior to joining the Uber AI labs he obtained a BS/MS from the RIT where he developed deep learning architectures for graph applications and ICR as well as hardware acceleration using FPGAs.
    Vashisht Madhavan
    Vashisht (Vash) is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, where he received his BS and MS in Computer Science, with a focus in Computer Vision and Artificial Intelligence. At Berkeley, his work focused on perception systems for autonomous vehicles. His interests lie at the intersection of computer vision, machine learning, and reinforcement learning.
    Joel Lehman
    Joel Lehman was previously an assistant professor at the IT University of Copenhagen, and researches neural networks, evolutionary algorithms, and reinforcement learning.
    Kenneth O. Stanley
    Before joining Uber AI Labs full time, Ken was an associate professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida (he is currently on leave). He is a leader in neuroevolution (combining neural networks with evolutionary techniques), where he helped invent prominent algorithms such as NEAT, CPPNs, HyperNEAT, and novelty search. His ideas have also reached a broader audience through the recent popular science book, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective.
    Jeff Clune
    Jeff Clune is the Loy and Edith Harris Associate Professor in Computer Science at the University of Wyoming and a Senior Research Manager and founding member of Uber AI Labs, which was formed after Uber acquired the startup Geometric Intelligence. Jeff focuses on robotics and training neural networks via deep learning and deep reinforcement learning. He has also researched open questions in evolutionary biology using computational models of evolution, including studying the evolutionary origins of modularity, hierarchy, and evolvability. Prior to becoming a professor, he was a Research Scientist at Cornell University, received a PhD in computer science and an MA in philosophy from Michigan State University, and received a BA in philosophy from the University of Michigan. More about Jeff’s research can be found at