In this paper, we present an online reinforcement learning algorithm, called Renewal Monte Carlo (RMC), for infinite horizon Markov decision processes with a designated start state. RMC is a Monte Carlo algorithm and retains the advantages of Monte Carlo methods including low bias, simplicity, and ease of implementation while, at the same time, circumvents their key drawbacks of high variance and delayed (end of episode) updates. The key ideas behind RMC are as follows. First, under any reasonable policy, the reward process is ergodic. So, by renewal theory, the performance of a policy is equal to the ratio of expected discounted reward to the expected discounted time over a regenerative cycle. Second, by carefully examining the expression for performance gradient, we propose a stochastic approximation algorithm that only requires estimates of the expected discounted reward and discounted time over a regenerative cycle and their gradients. We propose two unbiased estimators for evaluating performance gradients---a likelihood ratio based estimator and a simultaneous perturbation based estimator---and show that for both estimators, RMC converges to a locally optimal policy. We generalize the RMC algorithm to post-decision state models and also present a variant that converges faster to an approximately optimal policy. We conclude by presenting numerical experiments on a randomly generated MDP, event-triggered communication, and inventory management.
Published April 2018 , 18 pages