Adaptive agents must continually satisfy a range of distinct and possibly conflicting needs. In most models of learning, a monolithic agent tries to maximize one value that measures how well it balances its needs. However, this task is difficult when the world is changing and needs are many. Here, we considered an agent as a collection of modules, each dedicated to a particular need and competing for control of action. Compared to the standard monolithic approach, modular agents were much better at maintaining homeostasis of a set of internal variables in simulated environments, both static and changing. These results suggest that having “multiple selves” may represent an evolved solution to the universal problem of balancing multiple needs in changing environments.
Satisfying a variety of conflicting needs in a changing environment is a fundamental challenge for any adaptive agent. Here, we show that designing an agent in a modular fashion as a collection of subagents, each dedicated to a separate need, powerfully enhanced the agent’s capacity to satisfy its overall needs. We used the formalism of deep reinforcement learning to investigate a biologically relevant multiobjective task: continually maintaining homeostasis of a set of physiologic variables. We then conducted simulations in a variety of environments and compared how modular agents performed relative to standard monolithic agents (i.e., agents that aimed to satisfy all needs in an integrated manner using a single aggregate measure of success). Simulations revealed that modular agents a) exhibited a form of exploration that was intrinsic and emergent rather than extrinsically imposed; b) were robust to changes in nonstationary environments, and c) scaled gracefully in their ability to maintain homeostasis as the number of conflicting objectives increased. Supporting analysis suggested that the robustness to changing environments and increasing numbers of needs were due to intrinsic exploration and efficiency of representation afforded by the modular architecture. These results suggest that the normative principles by which agents have adapted to complex changing environments may also explain why humans have long been described as consisting of “multiple selves.”