Jul 26 2013
Laurens Bliek

Self-learning robots

Autonomous robots are supposed to perform their tasks without human guidance. One way to make this happen is by implementing some reward or penalty inside the robot; something similar to pleasure and pain in humans and animals. If the robot performs its task correctly, it receives a reward, if not, it receives a penalty, and the robot will choose its actions in such a way that it maximises its reward. This is studied in the area of reinforcement learning.

Suppose an autonomous robot ‘wakes up’ in an unknown body and in an unknown environment, and its task is to understand itself and the environment. This is, of course, a huge task that can even take some of us humans a lifetime to learn, so we will start with a simple version of this task: the robot has to predict what it will perceive when it performs a simple action, like moving one step forward. If it can succesfully do this in every possible situation and for every possible action, we could say that the robot has some sort of understanding of itself and the environment.

Now the problem of the creators of the robot is to implement a reward that will cause the robot to predict correctly in every possible situation. This can be divided in two goals: predict correctly, and explore new situations. This is similar to the exploration vs. exploitation trade-off in reinforcement learning, but a big difference is that we cannot say that moving towards a specific location in the environment for example, should give a high reward, since the environment is unknown. The only available information is the action of the robot, and what the robot perceives: sensory data .

Let’s say that every timestep the robot can predict sensory data by using current action and current sensory data and a predictor . The predictor can ‘learn’ by using any machine learning algorithm, for example by training a neural network. In general the predictor will not be perfect, so we define a prediction error . This error can be used to let the robot achieve its two goals of predicting correctly and explore new situations.

Minimise prediction error

If the robot receives a reward for minimising the prediction error, the expected behaviour is that the robot will choose those actions that are easiest to predict, like standing still, to receive rewards easily. This makes it achieve one goal, namely to predict correctly, but it will not cause the robot to explore new situations.

Maximise prediction error

If the robot receives a reward for high prediction errors, this will generally lead to explorative behaviour. The robot will move towards situations where it expects to have a high error, thus receiving rewards. This should work if the predictor can learn all of these situations, but in general it takes some time for a predictor to learn something. Moreover, there might be situations where the predictor cannot really learn to predict, like the noise on a television screen or if the robot moves too fast. Then the robot will move towards these situations and stay there because it will keep getting a high reward for this.

Maximise learning progress

A better solution is to give the robot a reward when it decreases the prediction error. A decrease in error is also called ‘learning progress’. When it maximises this learning progress, the robot might start simple by just standing still. At first, the prediction error will be high because it is the first time ever that the robot stands still. But it is not difficult to predict what the robot will perceive in this situation, so the prediction error will decrease. At some point, the error cannot decrease anymore (for example, because it might be zero), so then the robot has learned the situation and will move on to reach a situation where the error can still decrease. This solves both the ‘predicting correctly’ part and the ‘explore new situations’ part. If the robot ever encounters a situation where it cannot learn to predict correctly, then the error will not decrease and the robot will also move to a different situation.

Although there are still some drawbacks even to this last method, it is a good method to let the robot predict correctly and also explore new situations. For further reading, see:

  1. Oudeyer, Pierre-Yves, and Frederic Kaplan. “What is intrinsic motivation? a typology of computational approaches.” Frontiers in neurorobotics 1 (2007).
  2. Oudeyer, Pierre-Yves, et al. “The playground experiment: Task-independent development of a curious robot.” Proceedings of the AAAI Spring Symposium on Developmental Robotics. Stanford, California, 2005.
  3. Schmidhuber, Jürgen. “Developmental robotics, optimal artificial curiosity, creativity, music, and the fine arts.” Connection Science 18.2 (2006): 173-187.

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