Virtual-Taobao: Virtualizing Real-World Online Retail Environment for Reinforcement Learning


  • Jing-Cheng Shi Nanjing University
  • Yang Yu Nanjing University
  • Qing Da Alibaba Group
  • Shi-Yong Chen Alibaba Group
  • An-Xiang Zeng Alibaba Group



Applying reinforcement learning in physical-world tasks is extremely challenging. It is commonly infeasible to sample a large number of trials, as required by current reinforcement learning methods, in a physical environment. This paper reports our project on using reinforcement learning for better commodity search in Taobao, one of the largest online retail platforms and meanwhile a physical environment with a high sampling cost. Instead of training reinforcement learning in Taobao directly, we present our environment-building approach: we build Virtual-Taobao, a simulator learned from historical customer behavior data, and then we train policies in Virtual-Taobao with no physical sampling costs. To improve the simulation precision, we propose GAN-SD (GAN for Simulating Distributions) for customer feature generation with better matched distribution; we propose MAIL (Multiagent Adversarial Imitation Learning) for generating better generalizable customer actions. To further avoid overfitting the imperfection of the simulator, we propose ANC (Action Norm Constraint) strategy to regularize the policy model. In experiments, Virtual-Taobao is trained from hundreds of millions of real Taobao customers’ records. Compared with the real Taobao, Virtual-Taobao faithfully recovers important properties of the real environment. We further show that the policies trained purely in Virtual-Taobao, which has zero physical sampling cost, can have significantly superior real-world performance to the traditional supervised approaches, through online A/B tests. We hope this work may shed some light on applying reinforcement learning in complex physical environments.




How to Cite

Shi, J.-C., Yu, Y., Da, Q., Chen, S.-Y., & Zeng, A.-X. (2019). Virtual-Taobao: Virtualizing Real-World Online Retail Environment for Reinforcement Learning. Proceedings of the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence, 33(01), 4902-4909.



AAAI Technical Track: Machine Learning