Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Computer Science

First Advisor

Victor Lesser

Second Advisor

Andrew Barto

Third Advisor

Shlomo Zilberstein

Subject Categories

Computer Sciences


Cooperative multi-agent systems (MAS) are finding applications in a wide variety of domains, including sensor networks, robotics, distributed control, collaborative decision support systems, and data mining. A cooperative MAS consists of a group of autonomous agents that interact with one another in order to optimize a global performance measure. A central challenge in cooperative MAS research is to design distributed coordination policies. Designing optimal distributed coordination policies offline is usually not feasible for large-scale complex multi-agent systems, where 10s to 1000s of agents are involved, there is limited communication bandwidth and communication delay between agents, agents have only limited partial views of the whole system, etc. This infeasibility is either due to a prohibitive cost to build an accurate decision model, or a dynamically evolving environment, or the intractable computation complexity. This thesis develops a multi-agent reinforcement learning paradigm to allow agents to effectively learn and adapt coordination policies in complex cooperative domains without explicitly building the complete decision models. With multi-agent reinforcement learning (MARL), agents explore the environment through trial and error, adapt their behaviors to the dynamics of the uncertain and evolving environment, and improve their performance through experiences. To achieve the scalability of MARL and ensure the global performance, the MARL paradigm developed in this thesis restricts the learning of each agent to using information locally observed or received from local interactions with a limited number of agents (i.e., neighbors) in the system and exploits non-local interaction information to coordinate the learning processes of agents. This thesis develops new MARL algorithms for agents to learn effectively with limited observations in multi-agent settings and introduces a low-overhead supervisory control framework to collect and integrate non-local information into the learning process of agents to coordinate their learning. More specifically, the contributions of already completed aspects of this thesis are as follows: Multi-Agent Learning with Policy Prediction: This thesis introduces the concept of policy prediction and augments the basic gradient-based learning algorithm to achieve two properties: best-response learning and convergence. The convergence property of multi-agent learning with policy prediction is proven for a class of static games under the assumption of full observability. MARL Algorithm with Limited Observability: This thesis develops PGA-APP, a practical multi-agent learning algorithm that extends Q-learning to learn stochastic policies. PGA-APP combines the policy gradient technique with the idea of policy prediction. It allows an agent to learn effectively with limited observability in complex domains in presence of other learning agents. The empirical results demonstrate that PGA-APP outperforms state-of-the-art MARL techniques in both benchmark games. MARL Application in Cloud Computing: This thesis illustrates how MARL can be applied to optimizing online distributed resource allocation in cloud computing. Empirical results show that the MARL approach performs reasonably well, compared to an optimal solution, and better than a centralized myopic allocation approach in some cases. A General Paradigm for Coordinating MARL: This thesis presents a multi-level supervisory control framework to coordinate and guide the agents' learning process. This framework exploits non-local information and introduces a more global view to coordinate the learning process of individual agents without incurring significant overhead and exploding their policy space. Empirical results demonstrate that this coordination significantly improves the speed, quality and likelihood of MARL convergence in large-scale, complex cooperative multi-agent systems. An Agent Interaction Model: This thesis proposes a new general agent interaction model. This interaction model formalizes a type of interactions among agents, called {\em joint-even-driven} interactions, and define a measure for capturing the strength of such interactions. Formal analysis reveals the relationship between interactions between agents and the performance of individual agents and the whole system. Self-Organization for Nearly-Decomposable Hierarchy: This thesis develops a distributed self-organization approach, based on the agent interaction model, that dynamically form a nearly decomposable hierarchy for large-scale multi-agent systems. This self-organization approach is integrated into supervisory control framework to automatically evolving supervisory organizations to better coordinating MARL during the learning process. Empirically results show that dynamically evolving supervisory organizations can perform better than static ones. Automating Coordination for Multi-Agent Learning: We tailor our supervision framework for coordinating MARL in ND-POMDPs. By exploiting structured interaction in ND-POMDPs, this tailored approach distributes the learning of the global joint policy among supervisors and employs DCOP techniques to automatically coordinate distributed learning to ensure the global learning performance. We prove that this approach can learn a globally optimal policy for ND-POMDPs with a property called groupwise observability.