Counterfactual-Augmented Importance Sampling for Semi-Offline Policy Evaluation

NeurIPS 2023  ·  Shengpu Tang, Jenna Wiens ·

In applying reinforcement learning (RL) to high-stakes domains, quantitative and qualitative evaluation using observational data can help practitioners understand the generalization performance of new policies. However, this type of off-policy evaluation (OPE) is inherently limited since offline data may not reflect the distribution shifts resulting from the application of new policies. On the other hand, online evaluation by collecting rollouts according to the new policy is often infeasible, as deploying new policies in these domains can be unsafe. In this work, we propose a semi-offline evaluation framework as an intermediate step between offline and online evaluation, where human users provide annotations of unobserved counterfactual trajectories. While tempting to simply augment existing data with such annotations, we show that this naive approach can lead to biased results. Instead, we design a new family of OPE estimators based on importance sampling (IS) and a novel weighting scheme that incorporate counterfactual annotations without introducing additional bias. We analyze the theoretical properties of our approach, showing its potential to reduce both bias and variance compared to standard IS estimators. Our analyses reveal important practical considerations for handling biased, noisy, or missing annotations. In a series of proof-of-concept experiments involving bandits and a healthcare-inspired simulator, we demonstrate that our approach outperforms purely offline IS estimators and is robust to imperfect annotations. Our framework, combined with principled human-centered design of annotation solicitation, can enable the application of RL in high-stakes domains.

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