Agents as probabilistic programs
Introduction
Our goal is to implement agents that compute rational policies. Policies are plans for achieving good outcomes in environments where:

The agent makes a sequence of distinct choices, rather than choosing once.

The environment is stochastic (or “random”).

Some features of the environment are initially unknown to the agent. (So the agent may choose to gain information in order to improve future decisions.)
This section begins with agents that solve the very simplest decision problems. These are trivial oneshot problems, where the agent selects a single action (not a sequence of actions). We use WebPPL to solve these problems in order to illustrate the core concepts that are necessary for the more complex problems in later chapters.
Oneshot decisions in a deterministic world
In a oneshot decision problem an agent makes a single choice between a set of actions, each of which has potentially distinct consequences. A rational agent chooses the action that is best in terms of his or her own preferences. Often, this depends not on the action itself being preferred, but only on its consequences.
For example, suppose Tom is choosing between restaurants and all he cares about is eating pizza. There’s an Italian restaurant and a French restaurant. Tom would choose the French restaurant if it offered pizza. Since it does not offer pizza, Tom will choose the Italian.
Tom selects an action from the set of all actions. The actions in this case are {“eat at Italian restaurant”, “eat at French restaurant”}. The consequences of an action are represented by a transition function from stateaction pairs to states. In our example, the relevant state is whether or not Tom eats pizza. Tom’s preferences are represented by a realvalued utility function , which indicates the relative goodness of each state.
Tom’s decision rule is to take action that maximizes utility, i.e., the action
In WebPPL, we can implement this utilitymaximizing agent as a function maxAgent
that takes a state as input and returns an action. For Tom’s choice between restaurants, we assume that the agent starts off in a state "initialState"
, denoting whatever Tom does before going off to eat. The program directly translates the decision rule above using the higherorder function argMax
.
///fold: argMax
var argMax = function(f, ar){
return maxWith(f, ar)[0]
};
///
// Choose to eat at the Italian or French restaurants
var actions = ['italian', 'french'];
var transition = function(state, action) {
if (action === 'italian') {
return 'pizza';
} else {
return 'steak frites';
}
};
var utility = function(state) {
if (state === 'pizza') {
return 10;
} else {
return 0;
}
};
var maxAgent = function(state) {
return argMax(
function(action) {
return utility(transition(state, action));
},
actions);
};
print('Choice in initial state: ' + maxAgent('initialState'));
Exercise: Which parts of the code can you change in order to make the agent choose the French restaurant?
There is an alternative way to compute the optimal action for this problem. The idea is to treat choosing an action as an inference problem. The previous chapter showed how we can infer the probability that a coin landed Heads from the observation that two of three coins were Heads.
var twoHeads = Infer({
model() {
var a = flip(0.5);
var b = flip(0.5);
var c = flip(0.5);
condition(a + b + c === 2);
return a;
}
});
viz(twoHeads);
The same inference machinery can compute the optimal action in Tom’s decision problem. We sample random actions with uniformDraw
and condition on the preferred outcome happening. Intuitively, we imagine observing the consequence we prefer (e.g. pizza) and then infer from this the action that caused this consequence.
This idea is known as “planning as inference” refp:botvinick2012planning. It also resembles the idea of “backwards chaining” in logical inference and planning. The inferenceAgent
solves the same problem as maxAgent
, but uses planning as inference:
var actions = ['italian', 'french'];
var transition = function(state, action) {
if (action === 'italian') {
return 'pizza';
} else {
return 'steak frites';
}
};
var inferenceAgent = function(state) {
return Infer({
model() {
var action = uniformDraw(actions);
condition(transition(state, action) === 'pizza');
return action;
}
});
}
viz(inferenceAgent("initialState"));
Exercise: Change the agent’s goals so that they choose the French restaurant.
Oneshot decisions in a stochastic world
In the previous example, the transition function from stateaction pairs to states was deterministic and so described a deterministic world or environment. Moreover, the agent’s actions were deterministic; Tom always chose the best action (“Italian”). In contrast, many examples in this tutorial will involve a stochastic world and a noisy “softmax” agent.
Imagine that Tom is choosing between restaurants again. This time, Tom’s preferences are about the overall quality of the meal. A meal can be “bad”, “good” or “spectacular” and each restaurant has good nights and bad nights. The transition function now has type signature , where represents a distribution over states. Tom’s decision rule is now to take the action that has the highest average or expected utility, with the expectation taken over the probability of different successor states :
To represent this in WebPPL, we extend maxAgent
using the expectation
function, which maps a distribution with finite support to its (realvalued) expectation:
///fold: argMax
var argMax = function(f, ar){
return maxWith(f, ar)[0]
};
///
var actions = ['italian', 'french'];
var transition = function(state, action) {
var nextStates = ['bad', 'good', 'spectacular'];
var nextProbs = (action === 'italian') ? [0.2, 0.6, 0.2] : [0.05, 0.9, 0.05];
return categorical(nextProbs, nextStates);
};
var utility = function(state) {
var table = {
bad: 10,
good: 6,
spectacular: 8
};
return table[state];
};
var maxEUAgent = function(state) {
var expectedUtility = function(action) {
return expectation(Infer({
model() {
return utility(transition(state, action));
}
}));
};
return argMax(expectedUtility, actions);
};
maxEUAgent('initialState');
Exercise: Adjust the transition probabilities such that the agent chooses the Italian Restaurant.
The inferenceAgent
, which uses the planningasinference idiom, can also be extended using expectation
. Previously, the agent’s action was conditioned on leading to the best consequence (“pizza”). This time, Tom is not aiming to choose the action most likely to have the best outcome. Instead, he wants the action with better outcomes on average. This can be represented in inferenceAgent
by switching from a condition
statement to a factor
statement. The condition
statement expresses a “hard” constraint on actions: actions that fail the condition are completely ruled out. The factor
statement, by contrast, expresses a “soft” condition. Technically, factor(x)
adds x
to the unnormalized logprobability of the program execution within which it occurs.
To illustrate factor
, consider the following variant of the twoHeads
example above. Instead of placing a hard constraint on the total number of Heads outcomes, we give each setting of a
, b
and c
a score based on the total number of heads. The score is highest when all three coins are Heads, but even the “all tails” outcomes is not ruled out completely.
var softHeads = Infer({
model() {
var a = flip(0.5);
var b = flip(0.5);
var c = flip(0.5);
factor(a + b + c);
return a;
}
});
viz(softHeads);
As another example, consider the following short program:
var dist = Infer({
model() {
var n = uniformDraw([0, 1, 2]);
factor(n * n);
return n;
}
});
viz(dist);
Without the factor
statement, each value of the variable n
has equal probability. Adding the factor
statements adds n*n
to the logscore of each value. To get the new probabilities induced by the factor
statement we compute the normalizing constant given these logscores. The resulting probability is:
Returning to our implementation as planningasinference for maximizing expected utility, we use a factor
statement to implement soft conditioning:
var actions = ['italian', 'french'];
var transition = function(state, action) {
var nextStates = ['bad', 'good', 'spectacular'];
var nextProbs = (action === 'italian') ? [0.2, 0.6, 0.2] : [0.05, 0.9, 0.05];
return categorical(nextProbs, nextStates);
};
var utility = function(state) {
var table = {
bad: 10,
good: 6,
spectacular: 8
};
return table[state];
};
var alpha = 1;
var softMaxAgent = function(state) {
return Infer({
model() {
var action = uniformDraw(actions);
var expectedUtility = function(action) {
return expectation(Infer({
model() {
return utility(transition(state, action));
}
}));
};
factor(alpha * expectedUtility(action));
return action;
}
});
};
viz(softMaxAgent('initialState'));
The softMaxAgent
differs in two ways from the maxEUAgent
above. First, it uses the planningasinference idiom. Second, it does not deterministically choose the action with maximal expected utility. Instead, it implements soft maximization, selecting actions with a probability that depends on their expected utility. Formally, let the agent’s probability of choosing an action be for when in state . Then the softmax decision rule is:
The noise parameter modulates between random choice and the perfect maximization of the maxEUAgent
.
Since rational agents will always choose the best action, why consider softmax agents? One of the goals of this tutorial is to infer the preferences of agents (e.g. human beings) from their choices. People do not always choose the normatively rational actions. The softmax agent provides a simple, analytically tractable model of suboptimal choice^{1}, which has been tested empirically on human action selection refp:luce2005individual. Moreover, it has been used extensively in Inverse Reinforcement Learning as a model of human errors refp:kim2014inverse, refp:zheng2014robust. For this reason, we employ the softmax model throughout this tutorial. When modeling an agent assumed to be optimal, the noise parameter can be set to a large value.
Exercise: Monty Hall. In this exercise inspired by ProbMods, we will approach the classical statistical puzzle from the perspective of optimal decisionmaking. Here is a statement of the problem:
Alice is on a game show and she’s given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. She picks door 1. The host, Monty, knows what’s behind the doors and opens another door, say No. 3, revealing a goat. He then asks Alice if she wants to switch doors. Should she switch?
Use the tools introduced above to determine the answer. Here is some code to get you started:
// Remove each element in array ys from array xs
var remove = function(xs, ys) {
return _.without.apply(null, [xs].concat(ys));
};
var doors = [1, 2, 3];
// Monty chooses a door that is neither Alice's door
// nor the prize door
var monty = function(aliceDoor, prizeDoor) {
return Infer({
model() {
var door = uniformDraw(doors);
// ???
return door;
}});
};
var actions = ['switch', 'stay'];
// If Alice switches, she randomly chooses a door that is
// neither the one Monty showed nor her previous door
var transition = function(state, action) {
if (action === 'switch') {
return {
prizeDoor: state.prizeDoor,
montyDoor: state.montyDoor,
aliceDoor: // ???
};
} else {
return state;
}
};
// Utility is high (say 10) if Alice's door matches the
// prize door, 0 otherwise.
var utility = function(state) {
// ???
};
var sampleState = function() {
var aliceDoor = uniformDraw(doors);
var prizeDoor = uniformDraw(doors);
return {
aliceDoor,
prizeDoor,
montyDoor: sample(monty(aliceDoor, prizeDoor))
}
}
var agent = function() {
var action = uniformDraw(actions);
var expectedUtility = function(action){
return expectation(Infer({
model() {
var state = sampleState();
return utility(transition(state, action));
}}));
};
factor(expectedUtility(action));
return { action };
};
viz(Infer({ model: agent }));
Moving to complex decision problems
This chapter has introduced some of the core concepts that we will need for this tutorial, including expected utility, (stochastic) transition functions, soft conditioning and softmax decision making. These concepts would also appear in standard treatments of rational planning and reinforcement learning refp:russell1995modern. The actual decision problems in this chapter are so trivial that our notation and programs are overkill.
The next chapter introduces sequential decisions problems. These problems are more complex and interesting, and will require the machinery we have introduced here.
Footnotes

A softmax agent’s choice of action is a differentiable function of their utilities. This differentiability makes possible certain techniques for inferring utilities from choices. ↩