Reinforcement learning is a very useful (and currently popular) subtype of machine learning and artificial intelligence. It is based on the principle that agents, when placed in an interactive environment, can learn from their actions via rewards associated with the actions, and improve the time to achieve their goal.
In this article, we’ll explore the fundamental concepts of reinforcement learning and discuss its key components, types, and applications.
Definition of Reinforcement Learning
We can define reinforcement learning as a machine learning technique involving an agent who needs to decide which actions it needs to do to perform a task that has been assigned to it most effectively. For this, rewards are assigned to the different actions that the agent can take at different situations or states of the environment. Initially, the agent has no idea about the best or correct actions. Using reinforcement learning, it explores its action choices via trial and error and figures out the best set of actions for completing its assigned task.
The basic idea behind a reinforcement learning agent is to learn from experience. Just like humans learn lessons from their past successes and mistakes, reinforcement learning agents do the same – when they do something “good” they get a reward, but, if they do something “bad”, they get penalized. The reward reinforces the good actions while the penalty avoids the bad ones.
Reinforcement learning requires several key components:
- Agent – This is the “who” or the subject of the process, which performs different actions to perform a task that has been assigned to it.
- Environment – This is the “where” or a situation in which the agent is placed.
- Actions – This is the “what” or the steps an agent needs to take to reach the goal.
- Rewards – This is the feedback an agent receives after performing an action.
Before we dig deep into the technicalities, let’s warm up with a real-life example. Reinforcement isn’t new, and we’ve used it for different purposes for centuries. One of the most basic examples is dog training.
Let’s say you’re in a park, trying to teach your dog to fetch a ball. In this case, the dog is the agent, and the park is the environment. Once you throw the ball, the dog will run to catch it, and that’s the action part. When he brings the ball back to you and releases it, he’ll get a reward (a treat). Since he got a reward, the dog will understand that his actions were appropriate and will repeat them in the future. If the dog doesn’t bring the ball back, he may get some “punishment” – you may ignore him or say “No!” After a few attempts (or more than a few, depending on how stubborn your dog is), the dog will fetch the ball with ease.
We can say that the reinforcement learning process has three steps:
Types of Reinforcement Learning
There are two types of reinforcement learning: model-based and model-free.
Model-Based Reinforcement Learning
With model-based reinforcement learning (RL), there’s a model that an agent uses to create additional experiences. Think of this model as a mental image that the agent can analyze to assess whether particular strategies could work.
Some of the advantages of this RL type are:
- It doesn’t need a lot of samples.
- It can save time.
- It offers a safe environment for testing and exploration.
The potential drawbacks are:
- Its performance relies on the model. If the model isn’t good, the performance won’t be good either.
- It’s quite complex.
Model-Free Reinforcement Learning
In this case, an agent doesn’t rely on a model. Instead, the basis for its actions lies in direct interactions with the environment. An agent tries different scenarios and tests whether they’re successful. If yes, the agent will keep repeating them. If not, it will try another scenario until it finds the right one.
What are the advantages of model-free reinforcement learning?
- It doesn’t depend on a model’s accuracy.
- It’s not as computationally complex as model-based RL.
- It’s often better for real-life situations.
Some of the drawbacks are:
- It requires more exploration, so it can be more time-consuming.
- It can be dangerous because it relies on real-life interactions.
Model-Based vs. Model-Free Reinforcement Learning: Example
Understanding model-based and model-free RL can be challenging because they often seem too complex and abstract. We’ll try to make the concepts easier to understand through a real-life example.
Let’s say you have two soccer teams that have never played each other before. Therefore, neither of the teams knows what to expect. At the beginning of the match, Team A tries different strategies to see whether they can score a goal. When they find a strategy that works, they’ll keep using it to score more goals. This is model-free reinforcement learning.
On the other hand, Team B came prepared. They spent hours investigating strategies and examining the opponent. The players came up with tactics based on their interpretation of how Team A will play. This is model-based reinforcement learning.
Who will be more successful? There’s no way to tell. Team B may be more successful in the beginning because they have previous knowledge. But Team A can catch up quickly, especially if they use the right tactics from the start.
Reinforcement Learning Algorithms
A reinforcement learning algorithm specifies how an agent learns suitable actions from the rewards. RL algorithms are divided into two categories: value-based and policy gradient-based.
Value-based algorithms learn the value at each state of the environment, where the value of a state is given by the expected rewards to complete the task while starting from that state.
This model-free, off-policy RL algorithm focuses on providing guidelines to the agent on what actions to take and under what circumstances to win the reward. The algorithm uses Q-tables in which it calculates the potential rewards for different state-action pairs in the environment. The table contains Q-values that get updated after each action during the agent’s training. During execution, the agent goes back to this table to see which actions have the best value.
Deep Q-Networks (DQN)
Deep Q-networks, or deep q-learning, operate similarly to q-learning. The main difference is that the algorithm in this case is based on neural networks.
The acronym stands for state-action-reward-state-action. SARSA is an on-policy RL algorithm that uses the current action from the current policy to learn the value.
These algorithms directly update the policy to maximize the reward. There are different policy gradient-based algorithms: REINFORCE, proximal policy optimization, trust region policy optimization, actor-critic algorithms, advantage actor-critic, deep deterministic policy gradient (DDPG), and twin-delayed DDPG.
Examples of Reinforcement Learning Applications
The advantages of reinforcement learning have been recognized in many spheres. Here are several concrete applications of RL.
Robotics and Automation
With RL, robotic arms can be trained to perform human-like tasks. Robotic arms can give you a hand in warehouse management, packaging, quality testing, defect inspection, and many other aspects.
Another notable role of RL lies in automation, and self-driving cars are an excellent example. They’re introduced to different situations through which they learn how to behave in specific circumstances and offer better performance.
Gaming and Entertainment
Gaming and entertainment industries certainly benefit from RL in many ways. From AlphaGo (the first program that has beaten a human in the board game Go) to video games AI, RL offers limitless possibilities.
Finance and Trading
RL can optimize and improve trading strategies, help with portfolio management, minimize risks that come with running a business, and maximize profit.
Healthcare and Medicine
RL can help healthcare workers customize the best treatment plan for their patients, focusing on personalization. It can also play a major role in drug discovery and testing, allowing the entire sector to get one step closer to curing patients quickly and efficiently.
Basics for Implementing Reinforcement Learning
The success of reinforcement learning in a specific area depends on many factors.
First, you need to analyze a specific situation and see which RL algorithm suits it. Your job doesn’t end there; now you need to define the environment and the agent and figure out the right reward system. Without them, RL doesn’t exist. Next, allow the agent to put its detective cap on and explore new features, but ensure it uses the existing knowledge adequately (strike the right balance between exploration and exploitation). Since RL changes rapidly, you want to keep your model updated. Examine it every now and then to see what you can tweak to keep your model in top shape.
Explore the World of Possibilities With Reinforcement Learning
Reinforcement learning goes hand-in-hand with the development and modernization of many industries. We’ve been witnesses to the incredible things RL can achieve when used correctly, and the future looks even better. Hop in on the RL train and immerse yourself in this fascinating world.
Soon, we will be launching four new Degrees for AY24-25 at OPIT – Open Institute of Technology
I want to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the Product Definition process that has shaped these upcoming programs.
🚀 Phase 1: Discovery (Late May – End of July)
Our journey began with intensive brainstorming sessions with OPIT’s Academic Board (Francesco Profumo, Lorenzo Livi, Alexiei Dingli, Andrea Pescino, Rosario Maccarrone) . We also conducted 50+ interviews with tech and digital entrepreneurs (both from startups and established firms), academics and students. Finally, we deep-dived into the “Future of Jobs 2023” report by the World Economic Forum and other valuable research.
🔍 Phase 2: Selection – Crafting Our Roadmap (July – August)
Our focus? Introducing new degrees addressing critical workforce shortages and upskilling/reskilling needs for the next 5-10 years, promising significant societal impact and a broad market reach.
Our decision? To channel our energies on full BScs and MScs, and steer away from shorter courses or corporate-focused offerings. This aligns perfectly with our core mission.
💡 Focus Areas Unveiled!
We’re thrilled to concentrate on pivotal fields like:
- Advanced AI
- Digital Business
- Metaverse & Gaming
- Cloud Computing (less “glamorous”, but market demand is undeniable).
🎓 Phase 3: Definition – Shaping the Degrees (August – November)
With an expert in each of the above fields, and with the strong collaboration of our Academic Director, Prof. Lorenzo Livi , we embarked on a rigorous “drill-down process”. Our goal? To meld modern theoretical knowledge with cutting-edge competencies and skills. This phase included interviewing over 60+ top academics, industry professionals, and students and get valuable, program-specific, insights from our Marketing department.
🌟 Phase 4: Accreditation and Launch – The Final Stretch
We’re currently in the accreditation process, gearing up for the launch. The focus is now shifting towards marketing, working closely with Greta Maiocchi and her Marketing and Admissions team. Together, we’re translating our new academic offering into a compelling value proposition for the market.
Stay tuned for more updates!
Far from being a temporary educational measure that came into its own during the pandemic, online education is providing students from all over the world with new ways to learn. That’s proven by statistics from Oxford Learning College, which point out that over 100 million students are now enrolled in some form of online course.
The demand for these types of courses clearly exists.
In fact, the same organization indicates that educational facilities that introduce online learning see a 42% increase in income – on average – suggesting that the demand is there.
Enter the Open Institute of Technology (OPIT).
Delivering three online courses – a Bachelor’s degree in computer science and two Master’s degrees – with more to come, OPIT is positioning itself as a leader in the online education space. But why is that? After all, many institutions are making the jump to e-learning, so what separates OPIT from the pack?
Here, you’ll discover the answers as you delve into the five reasons why you should trust OPIT for your online education.
Reason 1 – A Practical Approach
OPIT focuses on computer science education – a field in which theory often dominates the educational landscape. The organization’s Rector, Professor Francesco Profumo, makes this clear in a press release from June 2023. He points to a misalignment between what educators are teaching computer science students and what the labor market actually needs from those students as a key problem.
“The starting point is the awareness of the misalignment,” he says when talking about how OPIT structures its online courses. “That so-called mismatch is generated by too much theory and too little practical approach.” In other words, students in many classes spend far too much time learning the “hows” and “whys” behind computerized systems without actually getting their hands dirty with real work that gives them practical experience in using those systems.
OPIT takes a different approach.
It has developed a didactic approach that focuses far more on the practical element than other courses. That approach is delivered through a combination of classroom sessions – such as live lessons and masterclasses – and practical work offered through quizzes and exercises that mimic real-world situations.
An OPIT student doesn’t simply learn how computers work. They put their skills into practice through direct programming and application, equipping them with skills that are extremely attractive to major employers in the tech field and beyond.
Reason 2 – Flexibility Combined With Support
Flexibility in how you study is one of the main benefits of any online course.
You control when you learn and how you do it, creating an environment that’s beneficial to your education rather than being forced into a classroom setting with which you may not feel comfortable. This is hardly new ground. Any online educational platform can claim that it offers “flexibility” simply because it provides courses via the web.
Where OPIT differs is that it combines that flexibility with unparalleled support bolstered by the experiences of teachers employed from all over the world. The founder and director of OPIT, Riccardo Ocleppo, sheds more light on this difference in approach when he says, “We believe that education, even if it takes place physically at a distance, must guarantee closeness on all other aspects.” That closeness starts with the support offered to students throughout their entire study period.
Tutors are accessible to students at all times. Plus, every participant benefits from weekly professor interactions, ensuring they aren’t left feeling stuck on an educational “island” and have to rely solely on themselves for their education. OPIT further counters the potential isolation that comes with online learning with a Student Support team to guide students through any difficulties they may have with their courses.
In this focus on support, OPIT showcases one of its main differences from other online platforms.
You don’t simply receive course material before being told to “get on with it.” You have the flexibility to learn at your own pace while also having a support structure that serves as a foundation for that learning.
Reason 3 – OPIT Can Adapt to Change Quickly
The field of computer science is constantly evolving.
In the 2020s alone, we’ve seen the rise of generative AI – spurred on by the explosive success of services like ChatGPT – and how those new technologies have changed the way that people use computers.
Riccardo Ocleppo has seen the impact that these constant evolutions have had on students. Before founding OPIT, he was an entrepreneur who received first-hand experience of the fact that many traditional educational institutions struggle to adapt to change.
“Traditional educational institutions are very slow to adapt to this wave of new technologies and trends within the educational sector,” he says. He points to computer science as a particular issue, highlighting the example of a board in Italy of which he is a member. That board – packed with some of the country’s most prestigious tech universities – spent three years eventually deciding to add just two modules on new and emerging technologies to their study programs.
That left Ocleppo feeling frustrated.
When he founded OPIT, he did so intending to make it an adaptable institution in which courses were informed by what the industry needs. Every member of its faculty is not only a superb teacher but also somebody with experience working in industry. Speaking of industry, OPIT collaborates with major companies in the tech field to ensure its courses deliver the skills that those organizations expect from new candidates.
This confronts frustration on both sides. For companies, an OPIT graduate is one for which they don’t need to bridge a “skill gap” between what they’ve learned and what the company needs. For you, as a student, it means that you’re developing skills that make you a more desirable prospect once you have your degree.
Reason 4 – OPIT Delivers Tier One Education
Despite their popularity, online courses can still carry a stigma of not being “legitimate” in the face of more traditional degrees. Ocleppo is acutely aware of this fact, which is why he’s quick to point out that OPIT always aims to deliver a Tier One education in the computer science field.
“That means putting together the best professors who create superb learning material, all brought together with a teaching methodology that leverages the advancements made in online teaching,” he says.
OPIT’s degrees are all accredited by the European Union to support this approach, ensuring they carry as much weight as any other European degree. It’s accredited by both the European Qualification Framework (EQF) and the Malta Qualification Framework (MQF), with all of its courses having full legal value throughout Europe.
It’s also here where we see OPIT’s approach to practicality come into play via its course structuring.
Take its Bachelor’s degree in computer science as an example.
Yes, that course starts with a focus on theoretical and foundational knowledge. Building a computer and understanding how the device processes instructions is vital information from a programming perspective. But once those foundations are in place, OPIT delivers on its promises of covering the most current topics in the field.
Machine learning, cloud computing, data science, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity – all valuable to employers – are taught at the undergraduate level. Students benefit from a broader approach to computer science than most institutions are capable of, rather than bogging them down in theory that serves little practical purpose.
Reason 5 – The Learning Experience
Let’s wrap up by honing in on what it’s actually like for students to learn with OPIT.
After all, as Ocleppo points out, one of the main challenges with online education is that students rarely have defined checkpoints to follow. They can start feeling lost in the process, confronted with a metaphorical ocean of information they need to learn, all in service of one big exam at the end.
Alternatively, some students may feel the temptation to not work through the materials thoroughly, focusing instead on passing a final exam. The result is that those students may pass, but they do so without a full grasp of what they’ve learned – a nightmare for employers who already have skill gaps to handle.
OPIT confronts both challenges by focusing on a continuous learning methodology. Assessments – primarily practical – take place throughout the course, serving as much-needed checkpoints for evaluating progress. When combined with the previously mentioned support that OPIT offers, this approach has led to courses that are created from scratch in service of the student’s actual needs.
Choose OPIT for Your Computer Science Education
At OPIT, the focus lies as much on helping students to achieve their dream careers as it does on teaching them. All courses are built collaboratively. With a dedicated faculty combined with major industry players, such as Google and Microsoft, it delivers materials that bridge the skill gap seen in the computer science field today.
There’s also more to come.
Beyond the three degrees OPIT offers, the institution plans to add more. Game development, data science, and cloud computing, to name a few, will receive dedicated degrees in the coming months, accentuating OPIT’s dedication to adapting to the continuous evolution of the computer science industry. Discover OPIT today – your journey into computing starts with the best online education institution available.