Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Computer Science

First Advisor

Sridhar Mahadevan, Chair

Second Advisor

Andrew G. Barto, Member

Third Advisor

Roderic Grupen, Member

Subject Categories

Computer Sciences


This dissertation investigates the problem of representation discovery in discrete Markov decision processes, namely how agents can simultaneously learn representation and optimal control. Previous work on function approximation techniques for MDPs largely employed hand-engineered basis functions. In this dissertation, we explore approaches to automatically construct these basis functions and demonstrate that automatically constructed basis functions significantly outperform more traditional, hand-engineered approaches. We specifically examine two problems: how to automatically build representations for action-value functions by explicitly incorporating actions into a representation, and how representations can be automatically constructed by exploiting a pre-specified task hierarchy. We first introduce a technique for learning basis functions directly in state-action space. The approach constructs basis functions using spectral analysis of a state-action graph which captures the underlying structure of the state-action space of the MDP. We describe two approaches to constructing these graphs and evaluate the approach on MDPs with discrete state and action spaces. We show how our approach can be used to approximate state-action value functions when the agent has access to macro-actions: actions that take more than one time step and have predefined policies. We describe how the state-action graphs can be modified to incorporate information about the macro-actions and experimentally evaluate this approach for SMDPs with discrete state and action spaces. Finally, we describe how hierarchical reinforcement learning can be used to scale up automatic basis function construction. We extend automatic basis function construction techniques to multi-level task hierarchies and describe how basis function construction can exploit the value function decomposition given by a fixed task hierarchy. We demonstrate that combining task hierarchies with automatic basis function construction allows basis function techniques to scale to larger problems and leads to a significant speed-up in learning.