Reinforcement Learning: Connections, Surprises, and Challenge

  • Andrew G. Barto University of Massachusetts Amherst


The idea of implementing reinforcement learning in a computer was one of the earliest ideas about the possibility of AI, but reinforcement learning remained on the margin of AI until relatively recently. Today we see reinforcement learning playing essential roles in some of the most impressive AI applications. This article presents observations from the author’s personal experience with reinforcement learning over the most recent 40 years of its history in AI, focusing on striking connections that emerged between largely separate disciplines and on some of the findings that surprised him along the way. These connections and surprises place reinforcement learning in a historical context, and they help explain the success it is finding in modern AI. The article concludes by discussing some of the challenges that need to be faced as reinforcement learning moves out into real world.