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Reinforcement Learning: Teaching Machines to Make Optimal Decisions

Reinforcement Learning: Teaching Machines to Make Optimal Decisions

Can machines truly learn from their experience? As humans require to gain knowledge, so do the machines, the robots! This is how the concept of Machine Learning works. The term ‘reinforce’ literally means to strengthen or to build up something. To reinforce learning means building up on or strengthening learning. Reinforcement Learning is an important inclusion of ML, which has proper frameworks for implementation purposes. 

The Reinforcement Learning market is expected to experience increasing growth, with a CAGR of ~44% from 2022 to 2030, driven by machine learning and AI adoption and expanding reinforcement application areas. 

Discover different types of RL, the basics, examples and real-world applications of Reinforcement Machine Learning.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:

  • What is Reinforcement Learning?
  • How Does Reinforcement Learning Work?
  • Elements of Reinforcement Learning
  • Types of Reinforcement: Positive and Negative
  • Reinforcement Learning Vs. Supervised Learning
  • Real-Life Applications of Reinforcement Learning
  • Real-World Examples of Reinforcement Learning
  • FAQs About Reinforcement Learning

What is Reinforcement Learning?

Reinforcement Machine Learning is the concept of simply feeding machines with the appropriate knowledge of taking suitable actions to increase rewards in specific situations. A machine and software are taught to follow the best possible way or behavior in different specific situations. In reinforcement learning, the software is programmed to learn from its experience, even in the absence of a training dataset. 

RL is the descriptive design of how science teaches decision-making, where experts reinforce learning the optimal behavior of an environment to acquire the maximum reward. The data is stocked from machine learning systems that rely on a trial-and-error approach and stored. 

How Does Reinforcement Learning Work?

Reinforcement learning is a system that can learn on its own through trial and error, being autonomous and self-teaching. RL works through three main components: agent, environment, and rewards. 

  • The agent is the actual machine learning algorithm that is designed to learn from experience aided by a set of rules that determine its actions.
  • The environment is the space where the agent operates.
  • The rewards (or penalties) stand as the feedback the agent receives according to its actions.
Reinforcement Learning Diagram

Alt text: Reinforcement Learning Diagram

Elements of Reinforcement Learning

The elements of Machine Learning (Reinforcement Learning) include policy, reward function, value function, and model of the environment.


Alt text: Elements of Reinforcement Learning

  • Policy

It is learning about the behavior of an agent for a particular time period. Actions are mapped based on the perception of the environment states.

  • Reward function

It is a function that is used to define a goal in an RL problem, which works by providing a numerical score based on the environment state.

  • Value function

It is a function that is used to specify something of value for further actions. The value of a state is the total expected reward an agent can accumulate starting from that state in the future.

  • Model of the Environment

For reinforcement learning, it is essential to have a representation of an agent's environment and interactions. The models serve this purpose as they are used for planning.

Types of Reinforcement: Positive and Negative

The two types of reinforcement are Positive and Negative:

Positive: When a behavior leads to an event that, in turn, increases the strength and frequency of the behavior, it is called a positive effect on behavior or positive reinforcement. 

The benefits of positive reinforcement learning include maximized performance and sustenance of change for a longer period of time.

Negative: When a behavior is strengthened due to a paused or avoided negative condition. 

The benefits of negative reinforcement learning include increased desirable behavior and motivation to meet minimum performance standards.

The table given below explains the main differences between the two types of reinforcement learning.

Reinforcement Learning Vs. Supervised Learning

As we know, Supervised Learning is also a type of ML apart from RL. The table below highlights the main differences:

Real-Life Applications of Reinforcement Learning

There are a number of real-life applications of RL. Here are a few examples:

1. Self-Driving Cars

Reinforcement Learning is applied to develop the autonomous driving characteristic of self-driving cars. Various aspects, such as drivable zones, speed limits at different locations, dodging collisions , and so on. 

Reinforcement learning and self-driving cars

Reinforcement learning can be used in various autonomous driving tasks, such as optimizing trajectories, motion planning, optimizing controllers, pathing, and devising scenario-based learning policies for highways.

2. NLP (Natural Language Processing)

In Natural Language Processing (NLP), Reinforcement Learning (RL) trains models to generate text and make language-based decisions by interacting with an environment. Tasks such as dialogue systems and language generation are enhanced.

Conversational AI through NLP

These language-related tasks are optimized by learning from feedback. Here RL adapts the models to generate contextually applicable and fluent content for machine translation, dialogue systems, text generation, and question answering. 

3. Healthcare

The RL system teaches policies so, in return, patients can get optimal treatment from machines. RL can generate optimal policies based on past experiences without requiring prior knowledge of biological system models. The approach becomes more applicable compared to any other healthcare control-based system.

Reinforcement learning in Healthcare

Patients with chronic conditions can get personalized treatment plans by using RL agents, which are programmed to learn from patients’ data to schedule treatment recommendations for the future. In healthcare, RL is classified as DTRs or dynamic treatment regimes in critical care, chronic disease, automated medical diagnosis, and additional general areas.

4. Inventory Management

Reinforcement learning can be used to improve inventory management in supply chain management. Balancing costs and stockouts, optimizing stock levels based on demand patterns, and improving supply chain effectiveness are some of the many actions. 

Inventory management with RL

To forecast demand and establish the ideal inventory levels, the agent uses historical data to learn. 

5. Robotics

In robotic manipulation, the RL system enables autonomous learning for performing complex tasks. The tasks could be object grasping, assembly, and manipulation. Robots learn to adapt to different environments through the trial-and-error method of RL. 

RL and robotics

The RL-based robot can improve task performance through continuous interactions with the environment, thus reducing the need for detailed programming or any other human disturbance.

FAQs About  Reinforcement Learning

Q1. In which situation is reinforcement learning easiest to use?

The situations where the basic geographical information about the world is limited are the best for Reinforcement Learning. It becomes easy as the RL system is designed to learn from the actions and interactions with the environment. i.e., through trial and error.

Q2. What is Deep Reinforcement Learning?

A combination of Reinforcement Learning (RL) and Deep Learning (DL) is called Deep Reinforcement Learning which is a subfield of Machine Learning. Deep RL is a type of Machine Learning where an agent learns to behave in an environment by performing actions and receiving rewards or penalties.

Apart from games, Deep RL has also been tested in several domains. In robotics, robots are programmed to use their robotic hand to perform household tasks and solve a Rubik's cube. Deep RL has been used to reduce energy consumption in data centers for sustainability goals.

Q3. How does a Reinforcement Machine Learning system approach a problem?

In the Reinforcement Machine Learning system, the training basically comprises the fundamentals of rewarding and punishing for desired and undesired behaviors, respectively. The entity (RL agent) is trained to be able to perceive and interpret its environment, make moves (actions) and grasp (learn) via trial and error.

Q4. What is the Markov Decision Process in Reinforcement Learning?

A mathematical framework known as the Markov decision process (MDP) is used to represent decision-making issues when the results are partially unpredictable and partially controllable. It is a framework that can deal with the majority of Reinforcement Learning challenges.

Q5. What is the characteristic of Reinforcement Learning?

In complex RL situations, actions can impact not only immediate rewards but also future situations and all subsequent rewards. These two most important and distinguishing characteristics of RL include trial-and-error search and delayed reward.

The agent’s action is like a hit-and-trial process where it is not informed about the environment and is neither commanded for the required actions. The agent changes states based on feedback from previous actions and may receive a delayed reward.

Nail Your Next Machine Learning Reinforcement Learning Interview 

Here is a golden chance for all of you who are willing to crack your Machine Learning interview. Sign up for our webinar now to discover the advantages of our professional interview preparation courses and mock interviews.

Interview Kickstart has assisted 17,000+ Engineers in securing desirable roles at FAANG and other Tier-1 companies. Our instructors are technical leaders and hiring managers from FAANG+ companies, and they are aware of the skills required to succeed in difficult technical interviews. Reserve your spot in the ML masterclass now!

Last updated on: 
September 6, 2023

Utkarsh Sahu

Director, Category Management @ Interview Kickstart || IIM Bangalore || NITW.

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Reinforcement Learning: Teaching Machines to Make Optimal Decisions

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