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Society of Mind

7.7 local responsibility

Suppose that Alice, who owns a wholesale store, asks the manager, Bill, to increase sales. Bill instructs the salesman, Charles, to sell more radios. Charles secures a large order, on profitable terms. But then the firm can't actually deliver those radios, because they are in short supply. Who is to blame? Alice would be justified in punishing Bill, whose job it was to verify the inventory. The question is, should Charles be rewarded? From Alice's viewpoint, Charles's actions have only disgraced the firm. But from Bill's viewpoint, Charles succeeded in his mission to get sales, and it wasn't his fault that this failed to accomplish his supervisor's goal. Consider this example from two perspectives — call them local reward and global reward.

The Local scheme rewards each agent that helps accomplish its supervisor's goal. So Bill rewards Charles, even though Charles's action served no higher-level goal.

The Global scheme rewards only agents that help accomplish top-level goals. So Charles gets no reward at all.

It is easy to invent machinery to embody local learning policies, since each assignment of credit depends only on the relation between an agent and its supervisor. It is harder to implement a global learning scheme because this requires machinery to find out which agents are connected all the way to the original goal by unbroken chains of accomplished subgoals. The local scheme is relatively generous to Charles by rewarding him whenever he accomplishes what is asked of him. The global scheme is much more parsimonious. It dispenses no credit whatever to Charles, even though he does as his supervisor requests, unless his action also contributes to the top-level enterprise. In such a scheme, agents will often learn nothing at all from their experiences. Accordingly, global policies lead to learning more slowly.

Both schemes have various advantages. The cautiousness of the global policy is appropriate when mistakes are very dangerous or when the system has plenty of time. This can lead to more responsible behavior — since it could make Charles learn, in time, to check the inventory for himself instead of slavishly obeying Bill. The global policy does not permit one to justify a bad action with I was only obeying the orders of my superior. On the other side, the local policy can lead to learning many more different things at once, since each agent can constantly improve its ability to achieve its local goals, regardless of how they relate to those of other portions of the mind. Surely our agencies have several such options. Which ones they use may depend, from moment to moment, upon the states of other agencies whose job it is to learn, themselves, which learning strategies to use, depending on the circumstances.

The global scheme requires some way to distinguish not only which agents' activities have helped to solve a problem, but also which agents helped with which subproblems. For example, in the course of building a tower, you might find it useful to push a certain block aside to make room for another one. Then you'd want to remember that pushing can help in building a tower — but if you were to conclude that pushing is a generally useful thing to do, you'd never get another tower built. When we solve a hard problem, it usually is not enough to say that what a certain agent did was good or bad for the entire enterprise; one must make such judgments depend, to some extent, on the local circumstances — that is, on how the work of each agent helped or hindered the work of related agents. The effect of rewarding an agent must be to make that agent react in ways that help to accomplish some specific goal — without too much interference with other, more important goals. All this is simple common sense, but in order to pursue it further, we'll have to clarify our language. We have all experienced the pursuit of goals, but experience is not the same as understanding. What is a goal, and how can a machine have one?