The advances made in textual and visual (and now aural) AI have been mind blowing in recent years. But most of this has been brought about via the massive availability of of textual, visual and audio data AND the advancement in hardware acceleration.
Robotics can take readily take advantage of hardware improvements but finding the robotic data needed to train robotic AI is a serious challenge.
Yes simulation environments can help but fidelity (how close simulation is to reality) is always a concern.
To gather the amounts of data needed to train a simple robotic manipulator to grab a screw from a bin is huge problem. In the past the only way to do this was, to create your robot, and have it start to do random screw type grab motions and monitor hat happens. After about a 1000 or 10K of these grabs, the robot would stop working because, gears wear down, grippers come loose, motors less responsive, images get obscured, etc. For robots it’s not as simple as scraping the web for images or downloading all the (english) text in wikipedia and masking select words to generate pseudo supervised learning. .
There’s just no way to do that in robotics without deploying 100s or 1000s or 10,000s of real physical robots (or cars) all instrumented with everything needed to capture data for AI learning in real time and let these devices go out on the world with humans guiding them.
While this might work for properly instrumented fleet of cars that are already useful in their own rights even without automation and humans are more than happy to guide them out on the road. This doesn’t work for other robots, whose usefulness can only be realized after they are AI trained, not before.
Fast-RLAP (RC) car driving learning machine
So I was very interested to see a tweet on FastRLAP (paper: FastRLAP: A System for Learning High-Speed Driving via Deep RL and Autonomous Practicing) which used deep reinforcement learning plus a human guided lap plus autonomous driving to teach an AI model how to drive a small RC model car with a vision system, IMUs and GPS to steer around a house, a racetrack and an office environment.
Ok,I know it still involves taking an instrumented robot and have it actually move around the real world. But, Fast-RLAP accelerates AI learning significantly. Rather than having to take 1000 or 10,000 random laps around a house, it was able to learn how to drive around the course to an expert level very rapidly
They used Fast-RLAP to create a policy that enabled the RC car to drive around 3 indoor circuits, two outdoor circuits and one simulated circuit and in most cases, achieving expert level track times, in typically under 40 minutes.
On the indoor course, vinyl floor, the car learned how to perform drift turns (not sure I know how to do do drift turns). On tight “S” curves, the car learned how to get as close to the proper racing line as possible (something I achieved, rarely, only on motorcycles a long time ago). And all while managing to avoid collisions
The approach seems to be have a human drive the model car slowly around the course, flagging or identifying intermediate way points or checkpoints on the track. During driving the loop, the car would use the direction to the next way point as guidance to where to drive next.
The approach seems to make use of a pre-trained track following DNN, but they stripped the driving dynamics (output layers) and just kept the vision (image) encoder portion to provide a means to encode an image and identify route relevant features (which future routes led to collisions, which routes were of interest to get to your next checkpoint, etc).
I believe they used this pre-trained DNN to supply a set of actions to the RL policy which would select between them to take RC car actions (wheel motor/brake settings, steering settings, etc.) and generate the next RC car state (location, direction to next waypoint, etc.).
They used an initial human guided lap, mentioned above to id way points and possibly to supply data for the first RL policy.
The RL part of the algorithm used off-policy RL learning (the RC car would upload lap data at waypoints to a server, which would periodically go through, select lap states and actions at random and update its RL policy, which would then be downloaded to the RC car in motion, (code: GitHub repo).
The reward function used to drive RL was based on minimizing the time to next way point, collision counts, and stuck counts.
I assume collision counts were instances where the car struck some obstacle but could continue on towards the next way point. Stuck instances were when the car could no longer move in the direction its RL policy told it. The system had a finite state machine that allowed it to get out of stuck points by reversing wheel motor(s) and choosing a random direction for steering.
You can see the effects of the pre-trained vision system in some of the screen shots of what the car was trying to do.
In any case, this is the sort of thinking that needs to go on in robotics in order to create more AI capable robots. That is, not unlike transformer learning, we need to figure out a way to take what’s already available in our world and use it to help generate the real world data needed to train robotic DNN/RL algorithms to do what needs to be done.