Is Reinforcement Learning (Not) for Natural Language Processing?: Benchmarks, Baselines, and Building Blocks for Natural Language Policy Optimization

We tackle the problem of aligning pre-trained large language models (LMs) with human preferences. If we view text generation as a sequential decision-making problem, reinforcement learning (RL) appears to be a natural conceptual framework. However, using RL for LM-based generation faces empirical challenges, including training instability due to the combinatorial action space, as well as a lack of open-source libraries and benchmarks customized for LM alignment. Thus, a question rises in the research community: is RL a practical paradigm for NLP? To help answer this, we first introduce an open-source modular library, RL4LMs (Reinforcement Learning for Language Models), for optimizing language generators with RL. The library consists of on-policy RL algorithms that can be used to train any encoder or encoder-decoder LM in the HuggingFace library (Wolf et al. 2020) with an arbitrary reward function. Next, we present the GRUE (General Reinforced-language Understanding Evaluation) benchmark, a set of 6 language generation tasks which are supervised not by target strings, but by reward functions which capture automated measures of human preference.GRUE is the first leaderboard-style evaluation of RL algorithms for NLP tasks. Finally, we introduce an easy-to-use, performant RL algorithm, NLPO (Natural Language Policy Optimization)} that learns to effectively reduce the combinatorial action space in language generation. We show 1) that RL techniques are generally better than supervised methods at aligning LMs to human preferences; and 2) that NLPO exhibits greater stability and performance than previous policy gradient methods (e.g., PPO (Schulman et al. 2017)), based on both automatic and human evaluation.

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