I can't understand the purpose of importance-sampling weights (IS) in Prioritized Replay (page 5).

A transition is more likely to be sampled from experience replay the larger its "cost" is. My understanding is that 'IS' helps with smoothely abandoning the use of prioritized replay after we've trained for long enough. But what do we use instead, uniform sampling?

I guess I can't realize how each component in such a coefficient is affecting the outcome. Could someone explain it in words?

$$w_i = \left( \frac{1}{N}\cdot \frac{1}{P(i)} \right) ^\beta$$

It's then used to dampen the gradient, which we try to get from transitions.


  • $w_i$ is "IS"
  • N is the size of Experience Replay buffer
  • P(i) is the chance to select transition $i$, depending on "how fat its cost is".
  • $\beta$ starts from 0 and is dragged closer and closer to 1 with each new epoch.

Is my understanding of these parameters also correct?

Edit Sometime after the answer was accepted I found an additional source, a video which might be helpful for beginners - MC Simmulations: 3.5 Importance Sampling

Edit As @avejidah said in the comment to his answer "$1/N$ is used to average the samples by the probability that they will be sampled".

To realise why it's important, assume $\beta$ is fixed to 1, we have 4 samples, each has $P(i)$ as follows:

0.1  0.2   0.3     0.4

That is, first entry has 10% of being chosen, second is 20% etc. Now, inverting them, we get:

 10   5    3.333   2.5

Averaging via $1/N$ (which in our case is $1/4$) we get:

2.5  1.25  0.8325  0.625     ...which would add up to '5.21'

As we can see they are much closer to zero than the simply inverted versions ($10, 5, 3.333, 2.5$). This means the gradient for our network won't be magnified as much, resulting in a lot less variance as we train our network.

So, without this $\frac{1}{N}$were we lucky to select the least likely sample ($0.1$), the gradient would be scaled 10 times. It would be even worse with smaller values, say $0.00001$ chance, if our experience replay has many thousands entries, which is quite usual.


DQN suffers intrinsically from instability. In the original implementation, multiple techniques are employed to improve stability:

  1. a target network is used with parameters that lag behind the trained model;
  2. rewards are clipped to the range [-1, 1];
  3. gradients are clipped to the range [-1, 1] (using something like Huber Loss or gradient clipping);
  4. and most relevant to your question, a large replay buffer is used to store transitions.

Continuing on point 4, using fully random samples from a large replay buffer helps to decorrelate the samples, because it's equally likely to sample transitions from hundreds of thousands of episodes in the past as it is to sample new ones. But when priority sampling is added into the mix, purely random sampling is abandoned: there's obviously a bias toward high-priority samples. To correct for this bias, the weights corresponding to high-priority samples are adjusted very little, whereas those corresponding to low-priority samples are relativity unchanged.

Intuitively this should make sense. Samples that have high priority are likely to be used in training many times. Reducing the weights on these oft-seen samples basically tells the network, "train on these samples, but without much emphasis; they'll be seen again soon." Conversely, when a low-priority sample is seen, the IS weights basically tell the network, "this sample will likely never be seen again, so fully update." Keep in mind that these low-priority samples have a low TD-error anyway, and so there's probably not much to be learned from them; however, they're still valuable for stability purposes.

In practice, the beta parameter is annealed up to 1 over the duration of training. The alpha parameter can be annealed simultaneously, thereby making prioritized sampling more aggressive while at the same time more strongly correcting the weights. And in practice, from the paper you linked, keeping a fixed alpha (.6) while annealing the beta from .4 to 1 seems to be the sweet-spot for priority-based sampling (page 14).

As a side note, from my own personal experience, simply ignoring the IS weights (i.e. not correcting at all) results in a network that trains well at first, but then the network appears to overfit, forgets what it's learned (aka catastrophic forgetting), and tanks. On Atari Breakout, for example, the averages increase during the first 50 million or so frames, then the averages completely tank. The paper you linked discusses this a bit, and provides some charts.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! I have a concern as to why would the authors need to balance by $\frac{1}{N}$ when they already have $\frac{1}{P(i)}$ (inside the 'IS' weight). Isn't $\frac{1}{P(i)}$ already based on the size of the collection anyway? $\endgroup$ – Kari Jun 20 '18 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ You're welcome. To answer the question in the comment, no, $\frac{1}{N}$ is not rolled into the $\frac{1}{P_(i)}$. $P_(i)$ is the probability of selecting sample i. That's calculated using $\frac{prio_i}{\sum_k{prio_k}}$ I.e. the priority of sample i over the sum of all priorities. (Where the priorities are generally computed as $(td\_error + \varepsilon)^\alpha$). Without going in to too much detail, the $\frac{1}{N}$ is there to average (keyword) the samples by the probability that they will be sampled. $\endgroup$ – avejidah Jun 20 '18 at 17:55
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    $\begingroup$ @user3180 The point of importance sampling is not to get an unbiased estimator of the expected return--it's biased by its very nature. The point is that some samples have more impact on the training than others, and hence should be sampled more frequently. The weighting corrects for the bias by decreasing the weight adjustments relative to samples' priorities. This weighting becomes increasingly important as the network begins to converge, so annealing is used. Ignoring the weighting or otherwise fully correcting for the bias is something that the PER paper covers (see figure 12). $\endgroup$ – avejidah Feb 25 '19 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ @user3180 In regard to your second question about using the full weight (β = 1): I suspect that in this case you will generally still see a benefit to PER, but generally the training will be slower than with beta annealing. Keep in mind that there are two parameters, α and β, and even if you fix β to 1, the α parameter dictates how much samples are prioritized. That is, samples are still pulled in a biased manner, and, even of the bias is fully corrected, the solution upon which your network converges will differ from the uniform case. Again, see figure 12 in the PER paper. $\endgroup$ – avejidah Feb 25 '19 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ @user3180 I'm not sure that I can provide a good mathematical answer; however, the practical reason is that by prioritizing the network trains on a dataset that differs from the uniform case. With 0 < α <= 1, the samples are prioritized, so they're non-uniform and biased. Sure, you can adjust the weights to correct for that bias, but the samples are still drastically different than the uniform case. Training on a different set of samples yields a different solution, regardless of the weight adjustments. $\endgroup$ – avejidah Feb 26 '19 at 17:22

I have a doubt. As PER paper,

For stability reasons, we always normalize weights by 1/ maxi wi so that they only scale the update downwards

So doesn't 1/N factor become ineffective? for example, consider the last sample,

case 1 without N : 0.25/10 = 0.25
case 2 with N=4; 0.625/2.5 = 0.25.


Wi = pow(N,-beta) * pow(Pi, -beta)
Wmax = pow(N,-beta) * pow(Pmin,-beta)

by normalizing,

Wi/Wmax will cancel out the pow(N, -beta).

Please help me if my understanding is wrong.

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  • $\begingroup$ You still need it. For example, consider having 100 entries, and a maximum value of some entry to be, say, 5. Now imagine switching to 1 trillion entries. $\endgroup$ – Kari Aug 3 '19 at 1:06
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I didnt get you. I have updated with formula. Please check and let me know your response. $\endgroup$ – Karthikeyan Nagarajan Aug 6 '19 at 5:04

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