Doctoral Thesis Defense: Aggregate Simulation for Efficient Planning and Inference

July 9, 2019
10:00 AM
Halligan 209
Speaker: Hao Cui
Host: Roni Khardon and Liping Liu


Many algorithms for decision making and machine learning problems are centered around the ideas of sampling and optimization. In this thesis, we introduce a new technique, aggregate simulation, and show how it can be used for decision making in Markov decision process (MDP), for decision making in partially observable MDP (POMDP), and for inference in Bayesian networks. The original idea of aggregate simulation is motivated in the context of MDP planning, where such simulation approximates the results of many sampled trajectories with a simple algebraic calculation. This provides a symbolic representation of the estimated long term reward which is then optimized with gradient ascent. The resulting algorithm, SOGBOFA, is a state-of-the-art planner for large MDPs. In POMDPs, observations provide partial information on the state of the world and the agent must act using only this partial information. We introduce a second technique, sampling networks, that enables aggregate simulation of both the state-action trajectories and the observations. The resulting algorithm, SNAP, has excellent performance on the benchmark POMDP problems. Our final contribution, builds on the connections between aggregate simulation and approximate inference in Bayesian networks. We introduce a new reduction and show how aggregate simulation can be used to solve difficult Marginal MAP inference problems. The resulting algorithm, AGS, is competitive with the state-of-the-art, and it is especially strong in problems with hard summation sub-problems. In all these problems, aggregate simulation provides a computation which is only approximate, but is efficient to compute. As our experimental evidence shows, despite the approximation, this enables effective and high quality solutions of large planning and inference problems, across many problem domains.