Empowerment for continuous agent-environment systems

Tobias Jung, D. Polani, Peter Stone

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    31 Citations (Scopus)


    This article develops generalizations of empowerment to continuous states. Empowerment is a recently introduced information-theoretic quantity motivated by hypotheses about the efficiency of the sensorimotor loop in biological organisms, but also from considerations stemming from curiosity-driven learning. Empowerment measures, for agent-environment systems with stochastic transitions, how much influence an agent has on its environment, but only that influence that can be sensed by the agent sensors. It is an information-theoretic generalization of joint controllability (influence on environment) and observability (measurement by sensors) of the environment by the agent, both controllability and observability being usually defined in control theory as the dimensionality of the control/observation spaces. Earlier work has shown that empowerment has various interesting and relevant properties, for example, it allows us to identify salient states using only the dynamics, and it can act as intrinsic reward without requiring an external reward. However, in this previous work empowerment was limited to the case of small-scale and discrete domains and furthermore state transition probabilities were assumed to be known. The goal of this article is to extend empowerment to the significantly more important and relevant case of continuous vector-valued state spaces and initially unknown state transition probabilities. The continuous state space is addressed by Monte Carlo approximation; the unknown transitions are addressed by model learning and prediction for which we apply Gaussian processes regression with iterated forecasting. In a number of well-known continuous control tasks we examine the dynamics induced by empowerment and include an application to exploration and online model learning.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)16-39
    Number of pages24
    JournalAdaptive Behavior
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2011


    • Information theory
    • learning
    • dynamical systems
    • self-motivated behavior


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