PhD Position F/M Bandits-Inspired Reinforcement Learning to Explore Large Stochastic Environments

Contract type : Fixed-term contract

Level of qualifications required : Graduate degree or equivalent

Fonction : PhD Position

About the research centre or Inria department

The  Inria University of Lille centre, created in 2008, employs 360 people  including 305 scientists in 15 research teams. Recognised for its strong  involvement in the socio-economic development of the Hauts-De-France  region, the Inria University of Lille centre pursues a close  relationship with large companies and SMEs. By promoting synergies  between researchers and industrialists, Inria participates in the  transfer of skills and expertise in digital technologies and provides  access to the best European and international research for the benefit  of innovation and companies, particularly in the region.For more  than 10 years, the Inria University of Lille centre has been located at  the heart of Lille's university and scientific ecosystem, as well as at  the heart of Frenchtech, with a technology showroom based on Avenue de  Bretagne in Lille, on the EuraTechnologies site of economic excellence  dedicated to information and communication technologies (ICT).


Odalric-Ambrym Maillard is a researcher at Inria. He has worked for over a decade on advancing the theoretical foundations of reinforcement learning, using a combination of tools from statistics, optimization and control, in order to build more efficient algorithms able to better estimate uncertainty, exploit structures, or adapt to some non-stationary context. He was the PI of the ANR-JCJC project BADASS (BAnDits Against non-Stationarity and Structure) until Oct. 2021. He is also leading the Inria Action Exploratoire SR4SG (Sequential Recommendation for Sustainable Gardening) and is involved in a series of other projects, from more applied to more theoretical ones all related to the grandchallenge of reinforcement learning that is to make it applicable in real-life situations.

The student will be hosted at Inria, in the Scool team. Scool (Sequential COntinual and Online Learning) is an Inria team-project. It was created on November 1st, 2020 as the follow-up of the team SequeL. In a nutshell, the research topic of Scool is the study of the sequential decision making problem under uncertainty. Most of our activities are related to either bandit problems, or reinforcement learning problems. Through collaborations, we are working on their application in various fields including health, agriculture and ecology, sustainable development. For more information, please visit


Having emerged in the last decade, Deep Reinforcement Learning (DRL), resulting from the combination
of Deep Learning (DL) and Reinforcement Learning (RL) techniques has predominantly been
explored in environments characterized by determinism or low stochasticity, such as games and robotic
tasks. However, the applicability of RL extends far beyond these controlled settings to encompass realworld
scenarios with substantial stochastic elements. This includes for instance, autonomous driving,
where stochasticity can be inherently induced by many factors like the unpredictable behavior of other
vehicles, pedestrians, and varying weather conditions. Another typical example is that of supporting
decision making in agrosystems subject to stochastic weather or pests conditions and inherent variability
due to latent variables, or in healthcare where similar treatments may affect individuals differently.
In these complex and dynamic real-world environments, deep approaches make sense in approximating
complex functions in a non-parametric manner, serving as effective feature extractors, especially when
agents contend with vast amounts of information. However, traditional deep RL approaches [14, 2]
face considerable challenges, primarily stemming from their inherent sample inefficiency. Existing
promising algorithms often adopt a model-based approach, explicitly attempting to learn the underlying
distribution of dynamics, then sample from it and derive an optimal policy using traditional RL
methods. However, such methods appear to be very brittle in the context of stochastic environments.

In stark contrast, in simpler scenarios, without dynamics but characterized by high stochasticity, bandit
algorithms efficiently manage the exploration-exploitation tradeoff. Over the past few years, significant
progress has been made in the field, in addressing more structured and complex bandit problems
[15, 17, 18, 20, 7, 8], including facing non-parametric [4, 6] or corrupted [1] reward distributions.
Rcvently, bandit strategies have been shown to achieve significant progress in handling Markov Decision
Processes, see [16, 19], though restricted to small, discrete environments, paving the path to more
challenging environments.

This Ph.D. aims to draw inspiration from these promising strategies to develop bandit-inspired deep reinforcement
learning approaches, specifically designed to effectively navigate stochastic environments
with substantial information complexity. Indeed, as a special and simplified subset of Markov Decision
Processes, bandits algorithm offer a profound theoretical understanding. The notion of regret comparing
the disparity between the potential optimal cumulated reward and the actual collected reward by
an agent following a specific learning strategy motivates creating sample-efficient strategies. Drawing
inspiration from bandits, we aspire to enhance the theoretical guarantees of Deep RL algorithms, traditionally
viewed as black boxes, to become more reliable including in stochastic environments.

The developed method aims to be more adapted to address real-world problems, a research topic that
is gaining increasing popularity, as evidenced by events like the Real Life Workshop at NeurIPS 2022.
In real-world scenarios, addressing challenges such as high randomness, risk, information abundance,
reward sparsity, and sample efficiency is crucial. The resulting algorithms will be instrumental for
the Inria team-project Scool and its collaborators, who are actively engaged in real-world applications
across diverse fields, with a primary focus on health, agriculture, ecology, and sustainable development.


[1] Shubhada Agrawal, Timoth´ee Mathieu, Debabrota Basu, and Odalric-Ambrym Maillard. Crimed: Lower
and upper bounds on regret for bandits with unbounded stochastic corruption, 2023.
[2] Kai Arulkumaran, Marc Peter Deisenroth, Miles Brundage, and Anil Anthony Bharath. Deep reinforcement
learning: A brief survey. IEEE Signal Processing Magazine, 34(6):26–38, 2017.
[3] Dorian Baudry, Romain Gautron, Emilie Kaufmann, and Odalric-Ambrym Maillard. Optimal Thompson
Sampling strategies for support-aware CVaR bandits. In ICML 2021 - International Conference on Machine
Learning, Virtual Conference, United States, July 2021.
[4] Dorian Baudry, Emilie Kaufmann, and Odalric-Ambrym Maillard. Sub-sampling for Efficient Non-
Parametric Bandit Exploration. In NeurIPS 2020, Vancouver, Canada, December 2020.
[5] Dorian Baudry, Patrick Saux, and Odalric-Ambrym Maillard. From optimality to robustness: Adaptive
re-sampling strategies in stochastic bandits. Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems, 34:14029–
14041, 2021.
[6] Dorian Baudry, Patrick Saux, and Odalric-Ambrym Maillard. From Optimality to Robustness: Dirichlet
Sampling Strategies in Stochastic Bandits. In Neurips 2021, Sydney, Australia, December 2021.
[7] Richard Combes, Mohammad Sadegh Talebi Mazraeh Shahi, Alexandre Proutiere, et al. Combinatorial
bandits revisited. Advances in neural information processing systems, 28, 2015.
[8] Thibaut Cuvelier, Richard Combes, and Eric Gourdin. Statistically efficient, polynomial-time algorithms for
combinatorial semi-bandits. Proceedings of the ACM on Measurement and Analysis of Computing Systems,
5(1):1–31, 2021.
[9] Awi Federgruen and Paul J Schweitzer. Successive approximation methods for solving nested functional
equations in markov decision problems. Mathematics of operations research, 9(3):319–344, 1984.
[10] Romain Gautron, Dorian Baudry, Myriam Adam, Gatien N Falconnier, and Marc Corbeels. Towards an
efficient and risk aware strategy for guiding farmers in identifying best crop management. arXiv preprint
arXiv:2210.04537, 2022.
[11] Yu-Chi Larry Ho and Xi-Ren Cao. Perturbation analysis of discrete event dynamic systems, volume 145.
Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.
[12] Junya Honda and Akimichi Takemura. An asymptotically optimal bandit algorithm for bounded support
models. In COLT, pages 67–79. Citeseer, 2010.
[13] Johannes Kirschner and Andreas Krause. Stochastic bandits with context distributions. Advances in Neural
Information Processing Systems, 32, 2019.
[14] Maxim Lapan. Deep Reinforcement Learning Hands-On: Apply modern RL methods, with deep Q-networks,
value iteration, policy gradients, TRPO, AlphaGo Zero and more. Packt Publishing Ltd, 2018.
[15] Stefan Magureanu. Structured Stochastic Bandits. PhD thesis, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, 2016.
[16] Fabien Pesquerel and Odalric-Ambrym Maillard. Imed-rl: Regret optimal learning of ergodic markov decision
processes. Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems, 35:26363–26374, 2022.
[17] Hassan Saber, Pierre M´enard, and Odalric-Ambrym Maillard. Optimal Strategies for Graph-Structured Bandits.
working paper or preprint, July 2020.
[18] Hassan Saber, Pierre M´enard, and Odalric-Ambrym Maillard. Indexed Minimum Empirical Divergence for
Unimodal Bandits. In NeurIPS 2021 - International Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems,
Virtual-only Conference, United States, December 2021.
[19] Hassan Saber, Fabien Pesquerel, Odalric-Ambrym Maillard, and Mohammad Sadegh Talebi. Logarithmic
regret in communicating mdps: Leveraging known dynamics with bandits. In Asian Conference on Machine
Learning, 2023.
[20] Hassan Saber, L´eo Saci, Odalric-Ambrym Maillard, and Audrey Durand. Routine Bandits: Minimizing
Regret on Recurring Problems. In ECML-PKDD 2021, Bilbao, Spain, September 2021.

Main activities

More particularly we propose to define three research axis, each of them mixing both theoretical and
practical advances:

2.1 Axis 1 - Adapting RL to stochastic environments:
In this axis, we aim to leverage insights from bandits, particularly in minimizing regret within highly
stochastic problems, to propose extensions or variants that can advance the capabilities of RL in large
stochastic environments. We intend to strengthen the development of RL methods for stochastic environments,
extending [16] from ergodic to generic MDPs and leveraging results from perturbation
analysis [11] and higher-order optimal control [9] to better handle the bias function hence build more effective
model-based RL methods. We will continue the efforts in injecting promising bandit strategies,
such as [12], [5] both in tabular and approximate algorithms, to develop hybrid deep-bandit strategies
for stochastic environments. We will also investigate how to extend the literature on RL in deterministic
environments, such as complex games and deterministic control tasks, to stochastic environments incorporating
popular Bayesian approaches. This research will contribute to the growing body of literature
on RL in stochastic environments and help practitioners develop methods for RL in these challenging
environments. To test these new methods, we aim to develop new benchmark/environments that
emphasis the manage of stochasticity.

2.2 Axis 2 - Structured interactions and auxiliary information:
To efficiently handle the rich diversity of interactions, we propose to investigate the problem of leveraging
auxiliary information in RL for systems with many state variables. Our focus will first be on
identifying the most influential variables, uncovering underlying structures, and developing methods to
forecast the evolution of these variables inspired from related questions in bandits [13]. We will then
investigate the structure that may be known to the domain expert, such as factored, causality or combinatorial
structures, to reduce the complexity of the learning task. More generally, this research will
contribute to the growing body of literature on leveraging auxiliary information in RL and help practitioners
improve the performance of their RL algorithms by leveraging the available expert knowledge.

2.3 Axis 3 - Context-goal exploration-exploitation trade-off
In this axis, We aim to extend the literature on contextual bandits and contextual MDPs by exploring
the concept of context-goal, seen as context variable shaping the objectives of the agent. Our goal is
to design an agent that is both general and efficient across diverse objectives, adapting to the changing
nature of the context to achieve optimal performance. Specifically, we propose to investigate the
problem of jointly addressing diverse objectives, such as different risk-aversion levels, across multiple
environments under the linear-context structural assumption. To address this problem, we will revisit
the exploration-exploitation trade-off to understand how to explore in one environment to gather information
that is relevant to another practitioner’s objective, in a collectively optimal way. This can be
done extending lower-bound techniques to this problem. Besides, we will also contribute to the literature
on risk-aversion in MDPs, extending our work [3, 10] from bandits to MDPs and to the contextual
case. Overall, this task will fill a gap in the literature by providing a framework for efficiently learning
from many environments with diverse objectives tailored to the preferences of the decision-maker, and
will contribute to the growing body of research on risk-aversion in RL.


During the initial six months, the student will delve into the literature to identify potential bandit and
deep RL algorithms for integration and extension. Simultaneously, benchmarking environments will
be developed. The subsequent three semesters will be dedicated to the development of new algorithms,
with a focus on achieving tangible results on real-world problems by the end of the fifth semester. The
sixth semester will be dedicated to thesis writing and job applications.


Technical skills and level required : Master in AI and RL related domains.

Languages : English (scientific writing)

Relational skills : Ability to interact with supervisor and other team members, present work in seminar or conference.

Benefits package

  • Subsidized meals
  • Partial reimbursement of public transport costs
  • Leave: 7 weeks of annual leave + 10 extra days off due to RTT (statutory reduction in working hours) + possibility of exceptional leave (sick children, moving home, etc.)
  • Possibility of teleworking and flexible organization of working hours
  • Professional equipment available (videoconferencing, loan of computer equipment, etc.)
  • Social, cultural and sports events and activities
  • Access to vocational training
  • Social security coverage


1st and 2nd year : 2100 € (grossly salary)

3st year: 2190 € (grossly salaray)