Sample-Based Tree Search with Fixed and Adaptive State Abstractions

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Jesse Hostetler
Alan Fern
Thomas Dietterich


Sample-based tree search (SBTS) is an approach to solving Markov decision problems based on constructing a lookahead search tree using random samples from a generative model of the MDP. It encompasses Monte Carlo tree search (MCTS) algorithms like UCT as well as algorithms such as sparse sampling. SBTS is well-suited to solving MDPs with large state spaces due to the relative insensitivity of SBTS algorithms to the size of the state space. The limiting factor in the performance of SBTS tends to be the exponential dependence of sample complexity on the depth of the search tree. The number of samples required to build a search tree is O((|A|B)^d), where |A| is the number of available actions, B is the number of possible random outcomes of taking an action, and d is the depth of the tree. State abstraction can be used to reduce B by aggregating random outcomes together into abstract states. Recent work has shown that abstract tree search often performs substantially better than tree search conducted in the ground state space.

This paper presents a theoretical and empirical evaluation of tree search with both fixed and adaptive state abstractions. We derive a bound on regret due to state abstraction in tree search that decomposes abstraction error into three components arising from properties of the abstraction and the search algorithm. We describe versions of popular SBTS algorithms that use fixed state abstractions, and we introduce the Progressive Abstraction Refinement in Sparse Sampling (PARSS) algorithm, which adapts its abstraction during search. We evaluate PARSS as well as sparse sampling with fixed abstractions on 12 experimental problems, and find that PARSS outperforms search with a fixed abstraction and that search with even highly inaccurate fixed abstractions outperforms search without abstraction. These results establish progressive abstraction refinement as a promising basis for new tree search algorithms, and we propose directions for future work within the progressive refinement framework.

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