Safety-constrained reinforcement learning with a distributional safety critic

Qisong Yang*, Thiago D Simão, Simon H. Tindemans, Matthijs T.J. Spaan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
117 Downloads (Pure)


Safety is critical to broadening the real-world use of reinforcement learning. Modeling the safety aspects using a safety-cost signal separate from the reward and bounding the expected safety-cost is becoming standard practice, since it avoids the problem of finding a good balance between safety and performance. However, it can be risky to set constraints only on the expectation neglecting the tail of the distribution, which might have prohibitively large values. In this paper, we propose a method called Worst-Case Soft Actor Critic for safe RL that approximates the distribution of accumulated safety-costs to achieve risk control. More specifically, a certain level of conditional Value-at-Risk from the distribution is regarded as a safety constraint, which guides the change of adaptive safety weights to achieve a trade-off between reward and safety. As a result, we can compute policies whose worst-case performance satisfies the constraints. We investigate two ways to estimate the safety-cost distribution, namely a Gaussian approximation and a quantile regression algorithm. On the one hand, the Gaussian approximation is simple and easy to implement, but may underestimate the safety cost, on the other hand, the quantile regression leads to a more conservative behavior. The empirical analysis shows that the quantile regression method achieves excellent results in complex safety-constrained environments, showing good risk control.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)859-887
Number of pages29
JournalMachine Learning
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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