Home Artificial Intelligence Education Unsupervised Reinforcement Learning for Skill Discovery

Unsupervised Reinforcement Learning for Skill Discovery

Audio version of the article

Recent research has demonstrated that supervised reinforcement learning (RL) is capable of going beyond simulation scenarios to synthesize complex behaviors in the real world, such as grasping arbitrary objects or learning agile locomotion. However, the limitations of teaching an agent to perform complex behaviors using well-designed task-specific reward functions are also becoming apparent. Designing reward functions can require significant engineering effort, which becomes untenable for a large number of tasks. For many practical scenarios, designing a reward function can be complicated, for example, requiring additional instrumentation for the environment (e.g., sensors to detect the orientation of doors) or manual-labelling of “goal” states. Considering that the ability to generate complex behaviors is limited by this form of reward-engineering, unsupervised learning presents itself as an interesting direction for RL.

In supervised RL, the extrinsic reward function from the environment guides the agent towards the desired behaviors, reinforcing the actions which bring the desired changes in the environment. With unsupervised RL, the agent uses an intrinsic reward function (such as curiosity to try different things in the environment) to generate its own training signals to acquire a broad set of task-agnostic behaviors. The intrinsic reward functions can bypass the problems of the engineering extrinsic reward functions, while being generic and broadly applicable to several agents and problems without any additional design. While much research has recently focused on different approaches to unsupervised reinforcement learning, it is still a severely under-constrained problem — without the guidance of rewards from the environment, it can be hard to learn behaviors which will be useful. Are there meaningful properties of the agent-environment interaction that can help discover better behaviors (“skills”) for the agents?

In this post, we present two recent publications that develop novel unsupervised RL methods for skill discovery. In “Dynamics-Aware Unsupervised Discovery of Skills” (DADS), we introduce the notion of “predictability” to the optimization objective for unsupervised learning. In this work we posit that a fundamental attribute of skills is that they bring about a predictable change in the environment. We capture this idea in our unsupervised skill discovery algorithm, and show applicability in a broad range of simulated robotic setups. In our follow-up work “Emergent Real-World Robotic Skills via Unsupervised Off-Policy Reinforcement Learning”, we improve the sample-efficiency of DADS to demonstrate that unsupervised skill discovery is feasible in the real world.

Recent research has demonstrated that supervised reinforcement learning (RL) is capable of going beyond simulation scenarios to synthesize complex behaviors in the real world, such as grasping arbitrary objects or learning agile locomotion. However, the limitations of teaching an agent to perform complex behaviors using well-designed task-specific reward functions are also becoming apparent. Designing reward functions can require significant engineering effort, which becomes untenable for a large number of tasks. For many practical scenarios, designing a reward function can be complicated, for example, requiring additional instrumentation for the environment (e.g., sensors to detect the orientation of doors) or manual-labelling of “goal” states. Considering that the ability to generate complex behaviors is limited by this form of reward-engineering, unsupervised learning presents itself as an interesting direction for RL.

In supervised RL, the extrinsic reward function from the environment guides the agent towards the desired behaviors, reinforcing the actions which bring the desired changes in the environment. With unsupervised RL, the agent uses an intrinsic reward function (such as curiosity to try different things in the environment) to generate its own training signals to acquire a broad set of task-agnostic behaviors. The intrinsic reward functions can bypass the problems of the engineering extrinsic reward functions, while being generic and broadly applicable to several agents and problems without any additional design. While much research has recently focused on different approaches to unsupervised reinforcement learning, it is still a severely under-constrained problem — without the guidance of rewards from the environment, it can be hard to learn behaviors which will be useful. Are there meaningful properties of the agent-environment interaction that can help discover better behaviors (“skills”) for the agents?

In this post, we present two recent publications that develop novel unsupervised RL methods for skill discovery. In “Dynamics-Aware Unsupervised Discovery of Skills” (DADS), we introduce the notion of “predictability” to the optimization objective for unsupervised learning. In this work we posit that a fundamental attribute of skills is that they bring about a predictable change in the environment. We capture this idea in our unsupervised skill discovery algorithm, and show applicability in a broad range of simulated robotic setups. In our follow-up work “Emergent Real-World Robotic Skills via Unsupervised Off-Policy Reinforcement Learning”, we improve the sample-efficiency of DADS to demonstrate that unsupervised skill discovery is feasible in the real world.

The behavior on the left is random and unpredictable, while the behavior on the right demonstrates systematic motion with predictable changes in the environment. Our goal is to learn potentially useful behaviors such as those on the right, without engineered reward functions.

Overview of DADS
DADS designs an intrinsic reward function that encourages discovery of “predictable” and “diverse” skills. The intrinsic reward function is high if (a) the changes in the environment are different for different skills (encouraging diversity) and (b) changes in the environment for a given skill are predictable (predictability). Since DADS does not obtain any rewards from the environment, optimizing the skills to be diverse enables the agent to capture as many potentially useful behaviors as possible.

In order to determine if a skill is predictable, we train another neural network, called the skill-dynamics network, to predict the changes in the environment state when given the current state and the skill being executed. The better the skill-dynamics network can predict the change of state in the environment, the more “predictable” the skill is. The intrinsic reward defined by DADS can be maximized using any conventional reinforcement learning algorithm.

An overview of DADS.

The algorithm enables several different agents to discover predictable skills purely from reward-free interaction with the environment. DADS, unlike prior work, can scale to high-dimensional continuous control environments such as Humanoid, a simulated bipedal robot. Since DADS is environment agnostic, it can be applied to both locomotion and manipulation oriented environments. We show some of the skills discovered by different continuous control agents.

Ant discovers galloping (top left) and skipping (bottom left), Humanoid discovers different locomotive gaits (middle, sped up 2x), and D’Claw from ROBEL (right) discovers different ways to rotate an object, all using DADS. More sample videos are available here.

Model-Based Control Using Skill-Dynamics
Not only does DADS enable the discovery of predictable and potentially useful skills, it allows for an efficient approach to apply the learned skills to downstream tasks. We can leverage the learned skill-dynamics to predict the state-transitions for each skill. The predicted state-transitions can be chained together to simulate the complete trajectory of states for any learned skill without executing it in the environment. Therefore, we can simulate the trajectory for different skills and choose the skill which gets the highest reward for the given task. The model-based planning approach described here can be very sample-efficient as no additional training is required for the skills. This is a significant step up from the prior approaches, which require additional training on the environment to combine the learned skills.

Using the skills discovered by the agents, we can traverse an arbitrary sequence of checkpoints without any additional training. The plot on the right follows the agent’s traversal from one checkpoint to another.

Real-World Results
The demonstration of unsupervised learning in real-world robotics has been fairly limited, with results being restricted to simulation environments. In “Emergent Real-World Robotic Skills via Unsupervised Off-Policy Reinforcement Learning”, we develop a sample-efficient version of our earlier algorithm, called off-DADS, through algorithmic and systematic improvements in an off-policy learning setup. Off-policy learning enables the use of data collected from different policies to improve the current policy. In particular, reusing the previously collected data can dramatically improve the sample-efficiency of reinforcement learning algorithms. Leveraging the improvement from off-policy learning, we train D’Kitty (a quadruped from ROBEL) in the real-world starting from random policy initialization without any rewards from the environment or hand-crafted exploration strategies. We observe the emergence of complex behaviors with diverse gaits and directions by optimizing the intrinsic reward defined by DADS.

Using off-DADS, we train D’Kitty from ROBEL to acquire diverse locomotion behaviors, which can then be used for goal-navigation through model-based control.

Future Work
We have contributed a novel unsupervised skill discovery algorithm with broad applicability that is feasible to be executed in the real-world. This work provides a foundation for future work, where robots can solve a broad range of tasks with minimal human effort. One possibility is to study the relationship between the state-representation and the skills discovered by DADS in order to learn a state-representation that encourages discovery of skills for a known distribution of downstream tasks. Another interesting direction for exploration is provided by the formulation of skill-dynamics that separates high-level planning and low-level control, and study its general applicability to reinforcement learning problems.

Acknowledgements
We would like to thank our coauthors, Michael Ahn, Sergey Levine, Vikash Kumar, Shixiang Gu and Karol Hausman. We would also like to acknowledge the support and feedback provided by various members of the Google Brain team and the Robotics at Google team.

The behavior on the left is random and unpredictable, while the behavior on the right demonstrates systematic motion with predictable changes in the environment. Our goal is to learn potentially useful behaviors such as those on the right, without engineered reward functions.

Overview of DADS
DADS designs an intrinsic reward function that encourages discovery of “predictable” and “diverse” skills. The intrinsic reward function is high if (a) the changes in the environment are different for different skills (encouraging diversity) and (b) changes in the environment for a given skill are predictable (predictability). Since DADS does not obtain any rewards from the environment, optimizing the skills to be diverse enables the agent to capture as many potentially useful behaviors as possible.

In order to determine if a skill is predictable, we train another neural network, called the skill-dynamics network, to predict the changes in the environment state when given the current state and the skill being executed. The better the skill-dynamics network can predict the change of state in the environment, the more “predictable” the skill is. The intrinsic reward defined by DADS can be maximized using any conventional reinforcement learning algorithm.

An overview of DADS.

The algorithm enables several different agents to discover predictable skills purely from reward-free interaction with the environment. DADS, unlike prior work, can scale to high-dimensional continuous control environments such as Humanoid, a simulated bipedal robot. Since DADS is environment agnostic, it can be applied to both locomotion and manipulation oriented environments. We show some of the skills discovered by different continuous control agents.

Ant discovers galloping (top left) and skipping (bottom left), Humanoid discovers different locomotive gaits (middle, sped up 2x), and D’Claw from ROBEL (right) discovers different ways to rotate an object, all using DADS. More sample videos are available here.

Model-Based Control Using Skill-Dynamics
Not only does DADS enable the discovery of predictable and potentially useful skills, it allows for an efficient approach to apply the learned skills to downstream tasks. We can leverage the learned skill-dynamics to predict the state-transitions for each skill. The predicted state-transitions can be chained together to simulate the complete trajectory of states for any learned skill without executing it in the environment. Therefore, we can simulate the trajectory for different skills and choose the skill which gets the highest reward for the given task. The model-based planning approach described here can be very sample-efficient as no additional training is required for the skills. This is a significant step up from the prior approaches, which require additional training on the environment to combine the learned skills.

Using the skills discovered by the agents, we can traverse an arbitrary sequence of checkpoints without any additional training. The plot on the right follows the agent’s traversal from one checkpoint to another.

Real-World Results
The demonstration of unsupervised learning in real-world robotics has been fairly limited, with results being restricted to simulation environments. In “Emergent Real-World Robotic Skills via Unsupervised Off-Policy Reinforcement Learning”, we develop a sample-efficient version of our earlier algorithm, called off-DADS, through algorithmic and systematic improvements in an off-policy learning setup. Off-policy learning enables the use of data collected from different policies to improve the current policy. In particular, reusing the previously collected data can dramatically improve the sample-efficiency of reinforcement learning algorithms. Leveraging the improvement from off-policy learning, we train D’Kitty (a quadruped from ROBEL) in the real-world starting from random policy initialization without any rewards from the environment or hand-crafted exploration strategies. We observe the emergence of complex behaviors with diverse gaits and directions by optimizing the intrinsic reward defined by DADS.

Using off-DADS, we train D’Kitty from ROBEL to acquire diverse locomotion behaviors, which can then be used for goal-navigation through model-based control.

Future Work
We have contributed a novel unsupervised skill discovery algorithm with broad applicability that is feasible to be executed in the real-world. This work provides a foundation for future work, where robots can solve a broad range of tasks with minimal human effort. One possibility is to study the relationship between the state-representation and the skills discovered by DADS in order to learn a state-representation that encourages discovery of skills for a known distribution of downstream tasks. Another interesting direction for exploration is provided by the formulation of skill-dynamics that separates high-level planning and low-level control, and study its general applicability to reinforcement learning problems.

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