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    A simpler method for learning to control a robot

    Researchers from MIT and Stanford University have devised a new machine-learning approach that could be used to control a robot, such as a drone or autonomous vehicle, more effectively and efficiently in dynamic environments where conditions can change rapidly.

    This technique could help an autonomous vehicle learn to compensate for slippery road conditions to avoid going into a skid, allow a robotic free-flyer to tow different objects in space, or enable a drone to closely follow a downhill skier despite being buffeted by strong winds.

    The researchers’ approach incorporates certain structure from control theory into the process for learning a model in such a way that leads to an effective method of controlling complex dynamics, such as those caused by impacts of wind on the trajectory of a flying vehicle. One way to think about this structure is as a hint that can help guide how to control a system.

    “The focus of our work is to learn intrinsic structure in the dynamics of the system that can be leveraged to design more effective, stabilizing controllers,” says Navid Azizan, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor in the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), and a member of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS). “By jointly learning the system’s dynamics and these unique control-oriented structures from data, we’re able to naturally create controllers that function much more effectively in the real world.”

    Using this structure in a learned model, the researchers’ technique immediately extracts an effective controller from the model, as opposed to other machine-learning methods that require a controller to be derived or learned separately with additional steps. With this structure, their approach is also able to learn an effective controller using fewer data than other approaches. This could help their learning-based control system achieve better performance faster in rapidly changing environments.

    “This work tries to strike a balance between identifying structure in your system and just learning a model from data,” says lead author Spencer M. Richards, a graduate student at Stanford University. “Our approach is inspired by how roboticists use physics to derive simpler models for robots. Physical analysis of these models often yields a useful structure for the purposes of control — one that you might miss if you just tried to naively fit a model to data. Instead, we try to identify similarly useful structure from data that indicates how to implement your control logic.”

    Additional authors of the paper are Jean-Jacques Slotine, professor of mechanical engineering and of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, and Marco Pavone, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford. The research will be presented at the International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML).

    Learning a controller

    Determining the best way to control a robot to accomplish a given task can be a difficult problem, even when researchers know how to model everything about the system.

    A controller is the logic that enables a drone to follow a desired trajectory, for example. This controller would tell the drone how to adjust its rotor forces to compensate for the effect of winds that can knock it off a stable path to reach its goal.

    This drone is a dynamical system — a physical system that evolves over time. In this case, its position and velocity change as it flies through the environment. If such a system is simple enough, engineers can derive a controller by hand. 

    Modeling a system by hand intrinsically captures a certain structure based on the physics of the system. For instance, if a robot were modeled manually using differential equations, these would capture the relationship between velocity, acceleration, and force. Acceleration is the rate of change in velocity over time, which is determined by the mass of and forces applied to the robot.

    But often the system is too complex to be exactly modeled by hand. Aerodynamic effects, like the way swirling wind pushes a flying vehicle, are notoriously difficult to derive manually, Richards explains. Researchers would instead take measurements of the drone’s position, velocity, and rotor speeds over time, and use machine learning to fit a model of this dynamical system to the data. But these approaches typically don’t learn a control-based structure. This structure is useful in determining how to best set the rotor speeds to direct the motion of the drone over time.

    Once they have modeled the dynamical system, many existing approaches also use data to learn a separate controller for the system.

    “Other approaches that try to learn dynamics and a controller from data as separate entities are a bit detached philosophically from the way we normally do it for simpler systems. Our approach is more reminiscent of deriving models by hand from physics and linking that to control,” Richards says.

    Identifying structure

    The team from MIT and Stanford developed a technique that uses machine learning to learn the dynamics model, but in such a way that the model has some prescribed structure that is useful for controlling the system.

    With this structure, they can extract a controller directly from the dynamics model, rather than using data to learn an entirely separate model for the controller.

    “We found that beyond learning the dynamics, it’s also essential to learn the control-oriented structure that supports effective controller design. Our approach of learning state-dependent coefficient factorizations of the dynamics has outperformed the baselines in terms of data efficiency and tracking capability, proving to be successful in efficiently and effectively controlling the system’s trajectory,” Azizan says. 

    When they tested this approach, their controller closely followed desired trajectories, outpacing all the baseline methods. The controller extracted from their learned model nearly matched the performance of a ground-truth controller, which is built using the exact dynamics of the system.

    “By making simpler assumptions, we got something that actually worked better than other complicated baseline approaches,” Richards adds.

    The researchers also found that their method was data-efficient, which means it achieved high performance even with few data. For instance, it could effectively model a highly dynamic rotor-driven vehicle using only 100 data points. Methods that used multiple learned components saw their performance drop much faster with smaller datasets.

    This efficiency could make their technique especially useful in situations where a drone or robot needs to learn quickly in rapidly changing conditions.

    Plus, their approach is general and could be applied to many types of dynamical systems, from robotic arms to free-flying spacecraft operating in low-gravity environments.

    In the future, the researchers are interested in developing models that are more physically interpretable, and that would be able to identify very specific information about a dynamical system, Richards says. This could lead to better-performing controllers.

    “Despite its ubiquity and importance, nonlinear feedback control remains an art, making it especially suitable for data-driven and learning-based methods. This paper makes a significant contribution to this area by proposing a method that jointly learns system dynamics, a controller, and control-oriented structure,” says Nikolai Matni, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved with this work. “What I found particularly exciting and compelling was the integration of these components into a joint learning algorithm, such that control-oriented structure acts as an inductive bias in the learning process. The result is a data-efficient learning process that outputs dynamic models that enjoy intrinsic structure that enables effective, stable, and robust control. While the technical contributions of the paper are excellent themselves, it is this conceptual contribution that I view as most exciting and significant.”

    This research is supported, in part, by the NASA University Leadership Initiative and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. More

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    A faster way to teach a robot

    Imagine purchasing a robot to perform household tasks. This robot was built and trained in a factory on a certain set of tasks and has never seen the items in your home. When you ask it to pick up a mug from your kitchen table, it might not recognize your mug (perhaps because this mug is painted with an unusual image, say, of MIT’s mascot, Tim the Beaver). So, the robot fails.

    “Right now, the way we train these robots, when they fail, we don’t really know why. So you would just throw up your hands and say, ‘OK, I guess we have to start over.’ A critical component that is missing from this system is enabling the robot to demonstrate why it is failing so the user can give it feedback,” says Andi Peng, an electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) graduate student at MIT.

    Peng and her collaborators at MIT, New York University, and the University of California at Berkeley created a framework that enables humans to quickly teach a robot what they want it to do, with a minimal amount of effort.

    When a robot fails, the system uses an algorithm to generate counterfactual explanations that describe what needed to change for the robot to succeed. For instance, maybe the robot would have been able to pick up the mug if the mug were a certain color. It shows these counterfactuals to the human and asks for feedback on why the robot failed. Then the system utilizes this feedback and the counterfactual explanations to generate new data it uses to fine-tune the robot.

    Fine-tuning involves tweaking a machine-learning model that has already been trained to perform one task, so it can perform a second, similar task.

    The researchers tested this technique in simulations and found that it could teach a robot more efficiently than other methods. The robots trained with this framework performed better, while the training process consumed less of a human’s time.

    This framework could help robots learn faster in new environments without requiring a user to have technical knowledge. In the long run, this could be a step toward enabling general-purpose robots to efficiently perform daily tasks for the elderly or individuals with disabilities in a variety of settings.

    Peng, the lead author, is joined by co-authors Aviv Netanyahu, an EECS graduate student; Mark Ho, an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology; Tianmin Shu, an MIT postdoc; Andreea Bobu, a graduate student at UC Berkeley; and senior authors Julie Shah, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics and the director of the Interactive Robotics Group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and Pulkit Agrawal, a professor in CSAIL. The research will be presented at the International Conference on Machine Learning.

    On-the-job training

    Robots often fail due to distribution shift — the robot is presented with objects and spaces it did not see during training, and it doesn’t understand what to do in this new environment.

    One way to retrain a robot for a specific task is imitation learning. The user could demonstrate the correct task to teach the robot what to do. If a user tries to teach a robot to pick up a mug, but demonstrates with a white mug, the robot could learn that all mugs are white. It may then fail to pick up a red, blue, or “Tim-the-Beaver-brown” mug.

    Training a robot to recognize that a mug is a mug, regardless of its color, could take thousands of demonstrations.

    “I don’t want to have to demonstrate with 30,000 mugs. I want to demonstrate with just one mug. But then I need to teach the robot so it recognizes that it can pick up a mug of any color,” Peng says.

    To accomplish this, the researchers’ system determines what specific object the user cares about (a mug) and what elements aren’t important for the task (perhaps the color of the mug doesn’t matter). It uses this information to generate new, synthetic data by changing these “unimportant” visual concepts. This process is known as data augmentation.

    The framework has three steps. First, it shows the task that caused the robot to fail. Then it collects a demonstration from the user of the desired actions and generates counterfactuals by searching over all features in the space that show what needed to change for the robot to succeed.

    The system shows these counterfactuals to the user and asks for feedback to determine which visual concepts do not impact the desired action. Then it uses this human feedback to generate many new augmented demonstrations.

    In this way, the user could demonstrate picking up one mug, but the system would produce demonstrations showing the desired action with thousands of different mugs by altering the color. It uses these data to fine-tune the robot.

    Creating counterfactual explanations and soliciting feedback from the user are critical for the technique to succeed, Peng says.

    From human reasoning to robot reasoning

    Because their work seeks to put the human in the training loop, the researchers tested their technique with human users. They first conducted a study in which they asked people if counterfactual explanations helped them identify elements that could be changed without affecting the task.

    “It was so clear right off the bat. Humans are so good at this type of counterfactual reasoning. And this counterfactual step is what allows human reasoning to be translated into robot reasoning in a way that makes sense,” she says.

    Then they applied their framework to three simulations where robots were tasked with: navigating to a goal object, picking up a key and unlocking a door, and picking up a desired object then placing it on a tabletop. In each instance, their method enabled the robot to learn faster than with other techniques, while requiring fewer demonstrations from users.

    Moving forward, the researchers hope to test this framework on real robots. They also want to focus on reducing the time it takes the system to create new data using generative machine-learning models.

    “We want robots to do what humans do, and we want them to do it in a semantically meaningful way. Humans tend to operate in this abstract space, where they don’t think about every single property in an image. At the end of the day, this is really about enabling a robot to learn a good, human-like representation at an abstract level,” Peng says.

    This research is supported, in part, by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Open Philanthropy, an Apple AI/ML Fellowship, Hyundai Motor Corporation, the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, and the National Science Foundation Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions. More

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    3 Questions: Honing robot perception and mapping

    Walking to a friend’s house or browsing the aisles of a grocery store might feel like simple tasks, but they in fact require sophisticated capabilities. That’s because humans are able to effortlessly understand their surroundings and detect complex information about patterns, objects, and their own location in the environment.

    What if robots could perceive their environment in a similar way? That question is on the minds of MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) researchers Luca Carlone and Jonathan How. In 2020, a team led by Carlone released the first iteration of Kimera, an open-source library that enables a single robot to construct a three-dimensional map of its environment in real time, while labeling different objects in view. Last year, Carlone’s and How’s research groups (SPARK Lab and Aerospace Controls Lab) introduced Kimera-Multi, an updated system in which multiple robots communicate among themselves in order to create a unified map. A 2022 paper associated with the project recently received this year’s IEEE Transactions on Robotics King-Sun Fu Memorial Best Paper Award, given to the best paper published in the journal in 2022.

    Carlone, who is the Leonardo Career Development Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and How, the Richard Cockburn Maclaurin Professor in Aeronautics and Astronautics, spoke to LIDS about Kimera-Multi and the future of how robots might perceive and interact with their environment.

    Q: Currently your labs are focused on increasing the number of robots that can work together in order to generate 3D maps of the environment. What are some potential advantages to scaling this system?

    How: The key benefit hinges on consistency, in the sense that a robot can create an independent map, and that map is self-consistent but not globally consistent. We’re aiming for the team to have a consistent map of the world; that’s the key difference in trying to form a consensus between robots as opposed to mapping independently.

    Carlone: In many scenarios it’s also good to have a bit of redundancy. For example, if we deploy a single robot in a search-and-rescue mission, and something happens to that robot, it would fail to find the survivors. If multiple robots are doing the exploring, there’s a much better chance of success. Scaling up the team of robots also means that any given task may be completed in a shorter amount of time.

    Q: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from recent experiments, and challenges you’ve had to overcome while designing these systems?

    Carlone: Recently we did a big mapping experiment on the MIT campus, in which eight robots traversed up to 8 kilometers in total. The robots have no prior knowledge of the campus, and no GPS. Their main tasks are to estimate their own trajectory and build a map around it. You want the robots to understand the environment as humans do; humans not only understand the shape of obstacles, to get around them without hitting them, but also understand that an object is a chair, a desk, and so on. There’s the semantics part.

    The interesting thing is that when the robots meet each other, they exchange information to improve their map of the environment. For instance, if robots connect, they can leverage information to correct their own trajectory. The challenge is that if you want to reach a consensus between robots, you don’t have the bandwidth to exchange too much data. One of the key contributions of our 2022 paper is to deploy a distributed protocol, in which robots exchange limited information but can still agree on how the map looks. They don’t send camera images back and forth but only exchange specific 3D coordinates and clues extracted from the sensor data. As they continue to exchange such data, they can form a consensus.

    Right now we are building color-coded 3D meshes or maps, in which the color contains some semantic information, like “green” corresponds to grass, and “magenta” to a building. But as humans, we have a much more sophisticated understanding of reality, and we have a lot of prior knowledge about relationships between objects. For instance, if I was looking for a bed, I would go to the bedroom instead of exploring the entire house. If you start to understand the complex relationships between things, you can be much smarter about what the robot can do in the environment. We’re trying to move from capturing just one layer of semantics, to a more hierarchical representation in which the robots understand rooms, buildings, and other concepts.

    Q: What kinds of applications might Kimera and similar technologies lead to in the future?

    How: Autonomous vehicle companies are doing a lot of mapping of the world and learning from the environments they’re in. The holy grail would be if these vehicles could communicate with each other and share information, then they could improve models and maps that much quicker. The current solutions out there are individualized. If a truck pulls up next to you, you can’t see in a certain direction. Could another vehicle provide a field of view that your vehicle otherwise doesn’t have? This is a futuristic idea because it requires vehicles to communicate in new ways, and there are privacy issues to overcome. But if we could resolve those issues, you could imagine a significantly improved safety situation, where you have access to data from multiple perspectives, not only your field of view.

    Carlone: These technologies will have a lot of applications. Earlier I mentioned search and rescue. Imagine that you want to explore a forest and look for survivors, or map buildings after an earthquake in a way that can help first responders access people who are trapped. Another setting where these technologies could be applied is in factories. Currently, robots that are deployed in factories are very rigid. They follow patterns on the floor, and are not really able to understand their surroundings. But if you’re thinking about much more flexible factories in the future, robots will have to cooperate with humans and exist in a much less structured environment. More

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    Drones navigate unseen environments with liquid neural networks

    In the vast, expansive skies where birds once ruled supreme, a new crop of aviators is taking flight. These pioneers of the air are not living creatures, but rather a product of deliberate innovation: drones. But these aren’t your typical flying bots, humming around like mechanical bees. Rather, they’re avian-inspired marvels that soar through the sky, guided by liquid neural networks to navigate ever-changing and unseen environments with precision and ease.

    Inspired by the adaptable nature of organic brains, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have introduced a method for robust flight navigation agents to master vision-based fly-to-target tasks in intricate, unfamiliar environments. The liquid neural networks, which can continuously adapt to new data inputs, showed prowess in making reliable decisions in unknown domains like forests, urban landscapes, and environments with added noise, rotation, and occlusion. These adaptable models, which outperformed many state-of-the-art counterparts in navigation tasks, could enable potential real-world drone applications like search and rescue, delivery, and wildlife monitoring.

    The researchers’ recent study, published today in Science Robotics, details how this new breed of agents can adapt to significant distribution shifts, a long-standing challenge in the field. The team’s new class of machine-learning algorithms, however, captures the causal structure of tasks from high-dimensional, unstructured data, such as pixel inputs from a drone-mounted camera. These networks can then extract crucial aspects of a task (i.e., understand the task at hand) and ignore irrelevant features, allowing acquired navigation skills to transfer targets seamlessly to new environments.

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    Drones navigate unseen environments with liquid neural networks.

    “We are thrilled by the immense potential of our learning-based control approach for robots, as it lays the groundwork for solving problems that arise when training in one environment and deploying in a completely distinct environment without additional training,” says Daniela Rus, CSAIL director and the Andrew (1956) and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. “Our experiments demonstrate that we can effectively teach a drone to locate an object in a forest during summer, and then deploy the model in winter, with vastly different surroundings, or even in urban settings, with varied tasks such as seeking and following. This adaptability is made possible by the causal underpinnings of our solutions. These flexible algorithms could one day aid in decision-making based on data streams that change over time, such as medical diagnosis and autonomous driving applications.”

    A daunting challenge was at the forefront: Do machine-learning systems understand the task they are given from data when flying drones to an unlabeled object? And, would they be able to transfer their learned skill and task to new environments with drastic changes in scenery, such as flying from a forest to an urban landscape? What’s more, unlike the remarkable abilities of our biological brains, deep learning systems struggle with capturing causality, frequently over-fitting their training data and failing to adapt to new environments or changing conditions. This is especially troubling for resource-limited embedded systems, like aerial drones, that need to traverse varied environments and respond to obstacles instantaneously. 

    The liquid networks, in contrast, offer promising preliminary indications of their capacity to address this crucial weakness in deep learning systems. The team’s system was first trained on data collected by a human pilot, to see how they transferred learned navigation skills to new environments under drastic changes in scenery and conditions. Unlike traditional neural networks that only learn during the training phase, the liquid neural net’s parameters can change over time, making them not only interpretable, but more resilient to unexpected or noisy data. 

    In a series of quadrotor closed-loop control experiments, the drones underwent range tests, stress tests, target rotation and occlusion, hiking with adversaries, triangular loops between objects, and dynamic target tracking. They tracked moving targets, and executed multi-step loops between objects in never-before-seen environments, surpassing performance of other cutting-edge counterparts. 

    The team believes that the ability to learn from limited expert data and understand a given task while generalizing to new environments could make autonomous drone deployment more efficient, cost-effective, and reliable. Liquid neural networks, they noted, could enable autonomous air mobility drones to be used for environmental monitoring, package delivery, autonomous vehicles, and robotic assistants. 

    “The experimental setup presented in our work tests the reasoning capabilities of various deep learning systems in controlled and straightforward scenarios,” says MIT CSAIL Research Affiliate Ramin Hasani. “There is still so much room left for future research and development on more complex reasoning challenges for AI systems in autonomous navigation applications, which has to be tested before we can safely deploy them in our society.”

    “Robust learning and performance in out-of-distribution tasks and scenarios are some of the key problems that machine learning and autonomous robotic systems have to conquer to make further inroads in society-critical applications,” says Alessio Lomuscio, professor of AI safety in the Department of Computing at Imperial College London. “In this context, the performance of liquid neural networks, a novel brain-inspired paradigm developed by the authors at MIT, reported in this study is remarkable. If these results are confirmed in other experiments, the paradigm here developed will contribute to making AI and robotic systems more reliable, robust, and efficient.”

    Clearly, the sky is no longer the limit, but rather a vast playground for the boundless possibilities of these airborne marvels. 

    Hasani and PhD student Makram Chahine; Patrick Kao ’22, MEng ’22; and PhD student Aaron Ray SM ’21 wrote the paper with Ryan Shubert ’20, MEng ’22; MIT postdocs Mathias Lechner and Alexander Amini; and Rus.

    This research was supported, in part, by Schmidt Futures, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force Artificial Intelligence Accelerator, and the Boeing Co. More

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    Meet the 2022-23 Accenture Fellows

    Launched in October 2020, the MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology underscores the ways in which industry and technology can collaborate to spur innovation. The five-year initiative aims to achieve its mission through research, education, and fellowships. To that end, Accenture has once again awarded five annual fellowships to MIT graduate students working on research in industry and technology convergence who are underrepresented, including by race, ethnicity, and gender.This year’s Accenture Fellows work across research areas including telemonitoring, human-computer interactions, operations research,  AI-mediated socialization, and chemical transformations. Their research covers a wide array of projects, including designing low-power processing hardware for telehealth applications; applying machine learning to streamline and improve business operations; improving mental health care through artificial intelligence; and using machine learning to understand the environmental and health consequences of complex chemical reactions.As part of the application process, student nominations were invited from each unit within the School of Engineering, as well as from the Institute’s four other schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Five exceptional students were selected as fellows for the initiative’s third year.Drew Buzzell is a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering and computer science whose research concerns telemonitoring, a fast-growing sphere of telehealth in which information is collected through internet-of-things (IoT) connected devices and transmitted to the cloud. Currently, the high volume of information involved in telemonitoring — and the time and energy costs of processing it — make data analysis difficult. Buzzell’s work is focused on edge computing, a new computing architecture that seeks to address these challenges by managing data closer to the source, in a distributed network of IoT devices. Buzzell earned his BS in physics and engineering science and his MS in engineering science from the Pennsylvania State University.

    Mengying (Cathy) Fang is a master’s student in the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. Her research focuses on augmented reality and virtual reality platforms. Fang is developing novel sensors and machine components that combine computation, materials science, and engineering. Moving forward, she will explore topics including soft robotics techniques that could be integrated with clothes and wearable devices and haptic feedback in order to develop interactions with digital objects. Fang earned a BS in mechanical engineering and human-computer interaction from Carnegie Mellon University.

    Xiaoyue Gong is a doctoral candidate in operations research at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Her research aims to harness the power of machine learning and data science to reduce inefficiencies in the operation of businesses, organizations, and society. With the support of an Accenture Fellowship, Gong seeks to find solutions to operational problems by designing reinforcement learning methods and other machine learning techniques to embedded operational problems. Gong earned a BS in honors mathematics and interactive media arts from New York University.

    Ruby Liu is a doctoral candidate in medical engineering and medical physics. Their research addresses the growing pandemic of loneliness among older adults, which leads to poor health outcomes and presents particularly high risks for historically marginalized people, including members of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. Liu is designing a network of interconnected AI agents that foster connections between user and agent, offering mental health care while strengthening and facilitating human-human connections. Liu received a BS in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University.

    Joules Provenzano is a doctoral candidate in chemical engineering. Their work integrates machine learning and liquid chromatography-high resolution mass spectrometry (LC-HRMS) to improve our understanding of complex chemical reactions in the environment. As an Accenture Fellow, Provenzano will build upon recent advances in machine learning and LC-HRMS, including novel algorithms for processing real, experimental HR-MS data and new approaches in extracting structure-transformation rules and kinetics. Their research could speed the pace of discovery in the chemical sciences and benefits industries including oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture. Provenzano earned a BS in chemical engineering and international and global studies from the Rochester Institute of Technology. More

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    Robots play with play dough

    The inner child in many of us feels an overwhelming sense of joy when stumbling across a pile of the fluorescent, rubbery mixture of water, salt, and flour that put goo on the map: play dough. (Even if this happens rarely in adulthood.)

    While manipulating play dough is fun and easy for 2-year-olds, the shapeless sludge is hard for robots to handle. Machines have become increasingly reliable with rigid objects, but manipulating soft, deformable objects comes with a laundry list of technical challenges, and most importantly, as with most flexible structures, if you move one part, you’re likely affecting everything else. 

    Scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Stanford University recently let robots take their hand at playing with the modeling compound, but not for nostalgia’s sake. Their new system learns directly from visual inputs to let a robot with a two-fingered gripper see, simulate, and shape doughy objects. “RoboCraft” could reliably plan a robot’s behavior to pinch and release play dough to make various letters, including ones it had never seen. With just 10 minutes of data, the two-finger gripper rivaled human counterparts that teleoperated the machine — performing on-par, and at times even better, on the tested tasks. 

    “Modeling and manipulating objects with high degrees of freedom are essential capabilities for robots to learn how to enable complex industrial and household interaction tasks, like stuffing dumplings, rolling sushi, and making pottery,” says Yunzhu Li, CSAIL PhD student and author on a new paper about RoboCraft. “While there’s been recent advances in manipulating clothes and ropes, we found that objects with high plasticity, like dough or plasticine — despite ubiquity in those household and industrial settings — was a largely underexplored territory. With RoboCraft, we learn the dynamics models directly from high-dimensional sensory data, which offers a promising data-driven avenue for us to perform effective planning.” 

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    With undefined, smooth material, the whole structure needs to be accounted for before you can do any type of efficient and effective modeling and planning. By turning the images into graphs of little particles, coupled with algorithms, RoboCraft, using a graph neural network as the dynamics model, makes more accurate predictions about the material’s change of shapes. 

    Typically, researchers have used complex physics simulators to model and understand force and dynamics being applied to objects, but RoboCraft simply uses visual data. The inner-workings of the system relies on three parts to shape soft material into, say, an “R.” 

    The first part — perception — is all about learning to “see.” It uses cameras to collect raw, visual sensor data from the environment, which are then turned into little clouds of particles to represent the shapes. A graph-based neural network then uses said particle data to learn to “simulate” the object’s dynamics, or how it moves. Then, algorithms help plan the robot’s behavior so it learns to “shape” a blob of dough, armed with the training data from the many pinches. While the letters are a bit loose, they’re indubitably representative. 

    Besides cutesy shapes, the team is (actually) working on making dumplings from dough and a prepared filling. Right now, with just a two finger gripper, it’s a big ask. RoboCraft would need additional tools (a baker needs multiple tools to cook; so do robots) — a rolling pin, a stamp, and a mold. 

    A more far in the future domain the scientists envision is using RoboCraft for assistance with household tasks and chores, which could be of particular help to the elderly or those with limited mobility. To accomplish this, given the many obstructions that could take place, a much more adaptive representation of the dough or item would be needed, and as well as exploration into what class of models might be suitable to capture the underlying structural systems. 

    “RoboCraft essentially demonstrates that this predictive model can be learned in very data-efficient ways to plan motion. In the long run, we are thinking about using various tools to manipulate materials,” says Li. “If you think about dumpling or dough making, just one gripper wouldn’t be able to solve it. Helping the model understand and accomplish longer-horizon planning tasks, such as, how the dough will deform given the current tool, movements and actions, is a next step for future work.” 

    Li wrote the paper alongside Haochen Shi, Stanford master’s student; Huazhe Xu, Stanford postdoc; Zhiao Huang, PhD student at the University of California at San Diego; and Jiajun Wu, assistant professor at Stanford. They will present the research at the Robotics: Science and Systems conference in New York City. The work is in part supported by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI (HAI), the Samsung Global Research Outreach (GRO) Program, the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), and Amazon, Autodesk, Salesforce, and Bosch. More

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    Researchers release open-source photorealistic simulator for autonomous driving

    Hyper-realistic virtual worlds have been heralded as the best driving schools for autonomous vehicles (AVs), since they’ve proven fruitful test beds for safely trying out dangerous driving scenarios. Tesla, Waymo, and other self-driving companies all rely heavily on data to enable expensive and proprietary photorealistic simulators, since testing and gathering nuanced I-almost-crashed data usually isn’t the most easy or desirable to recreate. 

    To that end, scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) created “VISTA 2.0,” a data-driven simulation engine where vehicles can learn to drive in the real world and recover from near-crash scenarios. What’s more, all of the code is being open-sourced to the public. 

    “Today, only companies have software like the type of simulation environments and capabilities of VISTA 2.0, and this software is proprietary. With this release, the research community will have access to a powerful new tool for accelerating the research and development of adaptive robust control for autonomous driving,” says MIT Professor and CSAIL Director Daniela Rus, senior author on a paper about the research. 

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    VISTA is a data-driven, photorealistic simulator for autonomous driving. It can simulate not just live video but LiDAR data and event cameras, and also incorporate other simulated vehicles to model complex driving situations. VISTA is open source and the code can be found below.

    VISTA 2.0 builds off of the team’s previous model, VISTA, and it’s fundamentally different from existing AV simulators since it’s data-driven — meaning it was built and photorealistically rendered from real-world data — thereby enabling direct transfer to reality. While the initial iteration supported only single car lane-following with one camera sensor, achieving high-fidelity data-driven simulation required rethinking the foundations of how different sensors and behavioral interactions can be synthesized. 

    Enter VISTA 2.0: a data-driven system that can simulate complex sensor types and massively interactive scenarios and intersections at scale. With much less data than previous models, the team was able to train autonomous vehicles that could be substantially more robust than those trained on large amounts of real-world data. 

    “This is a massive jump in capabilities of data-driven simulation for autonomous vehicles, as well as the increase of scale and ability to handle greater driving complexity,” says Alexander Amini, CSAIL PhD student and co-lead author on two new papers, together with fellow PhD student Tsun-Hsuan Wang. “VISTA 2.0 demonstrates the ability to simulate sensor data far beyond 2D RGB cameras, but also extremely high dimensional 3D lidars with millions of points, irregularly timed event-based cameras, and even interactive and dynamic scenarios with other vehicles as well.” 

    The team was able to scale the complexity of the interactive driving tasks for things like overtaking, following, and negotiating, including multiagent scenarios in highly photorealistic environments. 

    Training AI models for autonomous vehicles involves hard-to-secure fodder of different varieties of edge cases and strange, dangerous scenarios, because most of our data (thankfully) is just run-of-the-mill, day-to-day driving. Logically, we can’t just crash into other cars just to teach a neural network how to not crash into other cars.

    Recently, there’s been a shift away from more classic, human-designed simulation environments to those built up from real-world data. The latter have immense photorealism, but the former can easily model virtual cameras and lidars. With this paradigm shift, a key question has emerged: Can the richness and complexity of all of the sensors that autonomous vehicles need, such as lidar and event-based cameras that are more sparse, accurately be synthesized? 

    Lidar sensor data is much harder to interpret in a data-driven world — you’re effectively trying to generate brand-new 3D point clouds with millions of points, only from sparse views of the world. To synthesize 3D lidar point clouds, the team used the data that the car collected, projected it into a 3D space coming from the lidar data, and then let a new virtual vehicle drive around locally from where that original vehicle was. Finally, they projected all of that sensory information back into the frame of view of this new virtual vehicle, with the help of neural networks. 

    Together with the simulation of event-based cameras, which operate at speeds greater than thousands of events per second, the simulator was capable of not only simulating this multimodal information, but also doing so all in real time — making it possible to train neural nets offline, but also test online on the car in augmented reality setups for safe evaluations. “The question of if multisensor simulation at this scale of complexity and photorealism was possible in the realm of data-driven simulation was very much an open question,” says Amini. 

    With that, the driving school becomes a party. In the simulation, you can move around, have different types of controllers, simulate different types of events, create interactive scenarios, and just drop in brand new vehicles that weren’t even in the original data. They tested for lane following, lane turning, car following, and more dicey scenarios like static and dynamic overtaking (seeing obstacles and moving around so you don’t collide). With the multi-agency, both real and simulated agents interact, and new agents can be dropped into the scene and controlled any which way. 

    Taking their full-scale car out into the “wild” — a.k.a. Devens, Massachusetts — the team saw  immediate transferability of results, with both failures and successes. They were also able to demonstrate the bodacious, magic word of self-driving car models: “robust.” They showed that AVs, trained entirely in VISTA 2.0, were so robust in the real world that they could handle that elusive tail of challenging failures. 

    Now, one guardrail humans rely on that can’t yet be simulated is human emotion. It’s the friendly wave, nod, or blinker switch of acknowledgement, which are the type of nuances the team wants to implement in future work. 

    “The central algorithm of this research is how we can take a dataset and build a completely synthetic world for learning and autonomy,” says Amini. “It’s a platform that I believe one day could extend in many different axes across robotics. Not just autonomous driving, but many areas that rely on vision and complex behaviors. We’re excited to release VISTA 2.0 to help enable the community to collect their own datasets and convert them into virtual worlds where they can directly simulate their own virtual autonomous vehicles, drive around these virtual terrains, train autonomous vehicles in these worlds, and then can directly transfer them to full-sized, real self-driving cars.” 

    Amini and Wang wrote the paper alongside Zhijian Liu, MIT CSAIL PhD student; Igor Gilitschenski, assistant professor in computer science at the University of Toronto; Wilko Schwarting, AI research scientist and MIT CSAIL PhD ’20; Song Han, associate professor at MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Sertac Karaman, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT; and Daniela Rus, MIT professor and CSAIL director. The researchers presented the work at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Philadelphia. 

    This work was supported by the National Science Foundation and Toyota Research Institute. The team acknowledges the support of NVIDIA with the donation of the Drive AGX Pegasus. More

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    Meet the 2021-22 Accenture Fellows

    Launched in October of 2020, the MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology underscores the ways in which industry and technology come together to spur innovation. The five-year initiative aims to achieve its mission through research, education, and fellowships. To that end, Accenture has once again awarded five annual fellowships to MIT graduate students working on research in industry and technology convergence who are underrepresented, including by race, ethnicity, and gender.

    This year’s Accenture Fellows work across disciplines including robotics, manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and biomedicine. Their research covers a wide array of subjects, including: advancing manufacturing through computational design, with the potential to benefit global vaccine production; designing low-energy robotics for both consumer electronics and the aerospace industry; developing robotics and machine learning systems that may aid the elderly in their homes; and creating ingestible biomedical devices that can help gather medical data from inside a patient’s body.

    Student nominations from each unit within the School of Engineering, as well as from the four other MIT schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, were invited as part of the application process. Five exceptional students were selected as fellows in the initiative’s second year.

    Xinming (Lily) Liu is a PhD student in operations research at MIT Sloan School of Management. Her work is focused on behavioral and data-driven operations for social good, incorporating human behaviors into traditional optimization models, designing incentives, and analyzing real-world data. Her current research looks at the convergence of social media, digital platforms, and agriculture, with particular attention to expanding technological equity and economic opportunity in developing countries. Liu earned her BS from Cornell University, with a double major in operations research and computer science.

    Caris Moses is a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science specializing inartificial intelligence. Moses’ research focuses on using machine learning, optimization, and electromechanical engineering to build robotics systems that are robust, flexible, intelligent, and can learn on the job. The technology she is developing holds promise for industries including flexible, small-batch manufacturing; robots to assist the elderly in their households; and warehouse management and fulfillment. Moses earned her BS in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and her MS in computer science from Northeastern University.

    Sergio Rodriguez Aponte is a PhD student in biological engineering. He is working on the convergence of computational design and manufacturing practices, which have the potential to impact industries such as biopharmaceuticals, food, and wellness/nutrition. His current research aims to develop strategies for applying computational tools, such as multiscale modeling and machine learning, to the design and production of manufacturable and accessible vaccine candidates that could eventually be available globally. Rodriguez Aponte earned his BS in industrial biotechnology from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.

    Soumya Sudhakar SM ’20 is a PhD student in aeronautics and astronautics. Her work is focused on theco-design of new algorithms and integrated circuits for autonomous low-energy robotics that could have novel applications in aerospace and consumer electronics. Her contributions bring together the emerging robotics industry, integrated circuits industry, aerospace industry, and consumer electronics industry. Sudhakar earned her BSE in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University and her MS in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT.

    So-Yoon Yang is a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science. Her work on the development of low-power, wireless, ingestible biomedical devices for health care is at the intersection of the medical device, integrated circuit, artificial intelligence, and pharmaceutical fields. Currently, the majority of wireless biomedical devices can only provide a limited range of medical data measured from outside the body. Ingestible devices hold promise for the next generation of personal health care because they do not require surgical implantation, can be useful for detecting physiological and pathophysiological signals, and can also function as therapeutic alternatives when treatment cannot be done externally. Yang earned her BS in electrical and computer engineering from Seoul National University in South Korea and her MS in electrical engineering from Caltech. More