Planning in Observable POMDPs in Quasipolynomial Time

Noah Golowich, Ankur Moitra, Dhruv Rohatgi

Partially Observable Markov Decision Processes (POMDPs) are a natural and general model in reinforcement learning that take into account the agent's uncertainty about its current state. In the literature on POMDPs, it is customary to assume access to a planning oracle that computes an optimal policy when the parameters are known, even though the problem is known to be computationally hard. Almost all existing planning algorithms either run in exponential time, lack provable performance guarantees, or require placing strong assumptions on the transition dynamics under every possible policy. In this work, we revisit the planning problem and ask: are there natural and well-motivated assumptions that make planning easy? Our main result is a quasipolynomial-time algorithm for planning in (one-step) observable POMDPs. Specifically, we assume that well-separated distributions on states lead to well-separated distributions on observations, and thus the observations are at least somewhat informative in each step. Crucially, this assumption places no restrictions on the transition dynamics of the POMDP; nevertheless, it implies that near-optimal policies admit quasi-succinct descriptions, which is not true in general (under standard hardness assumptions). Our analysis is based on new quantitative bounds for filter stability -- i.e. the rate at which an optimal filter for the latent state forgets its initialization. Furthermore, we prove matching hardness for planning in observable POMDPs under the Exponential Time Hypothesis.

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