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Extending HER to visual domain with GANs

Cover story for the research paper by Himanshu Sahni, Toby Buckley, Pieter Abbeel and Ilya Kuzovkin
Addressing Sample Complexity in Visual Tasks Using Hindsight Experience Replay and Hallucinatory GANs
ICML 2019 Workshop on Reinforcement Learning for Real Life


An end-to-end reinforcement learning (RL) process starts with an agent that randomly interacts with the environment, hoping to score some rewards purely by chance. Those rare occasions when the roaming agent stumbles on a reward (or on a penalty) constitute the learning experience. All other time is spent learning nothing and is wasted.

To address that obvious waste of resource a technique called Hindsight Experience Replay (HER) was introduced in 2017 by M. Andrychowicz et al. Imagine that the goal of the agent is to reach a location \(X\). But after some roaming around it ends up in location \(Y\). Usually we would discard the trajectory that led to \(Y\) and learn nothing form it. In HER, however, we pretend that \(Y\), and not \(X\), was the intended goal. This way the agent will learn what to do if, in some point in the future, its task will be to reach the location \(Y\).

At OffWorld we are trying to apply RL to real physical robots. This makes the problem of high sample complexity especially acute: all those wasted trajectories cost time, energy consumed, time spent on maintenance of a physical robot and its space parts. If in games and simulation-based RL reducing sample complexity is a nice-to-have, in robotics it often defines whether the learning will be feasible or there is no point in even attempting it. This is why we are looking at all possible sample complexity reduction techniques and implement them within our systems. HER is one of those techniques.

However, there is one problem with applying HER to our robots. Namely — how do we “pretend that \(Y\), and not \(X\), was the intended goal”? In original HER this was achieved by substituting the end goal configuration — just changing \((x, y)\) of the intended location does the trick. In visual domain goal state contains actual visual representation (camera frame) of the environment (Fig 1). In order to pretend that a goal was there ones has to add it to an image.
Fig 1. Goal state in visual domain. Makes it hard to transformed a failed trajectory into a useful one by “pretending” that a goal was reached.
Generative adversarial networks (GANs) are extremely successful in generating images that satisfy the learning objective given to them. For example, if we want to generate an image of the environment with an object added to it, we can train a GAN to hallucinate objects into the frames given a handful (~1000 in our case) examples. Fig 2 shows how HALGAN (name of our method) generates pebbles at any position within the camera frame.
Fig 2. HALGAN can hallucinate an object at any (distance, angle) location within the original visual observation.
With thin functionality we are now able to transform empty trajectories into successful ones (Fig 3). Now we can sample trajectories from the replay buffer and control what is the percentage of positive learning experiences we want our agent to have.
Fig 3. Failed trajectory (top row) is transformed into a successful learning experience (bottom row) with HALGAN.
The ultimate purpose of this project was to reduce sample complexity of the learning process. In our experiment HALGAN allowed for almost 2x improvement (Fig 4), and for some environments, that are too sparse for a naive methods to solve, facilitate qualitative change towards successful learning by reducing sparsity of the observed rewards.
Fig 4. HALGAN allowed for almost 2x learning speedup.
For more details please read our paper Addressing Sample Complexity in Visual Tasks Using Hindsight Experience Replay and Hallucinatory GANs by Himanshu Sahni, Toby Buckley, Pieter Abbeel and myself presented at ICML 2019 Workshop on Reinforcement Learning for Real Life.
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I have worked on various projects in machine learning and computer science, neuroscience and brain-computer interfaces, reinforcement learning and robotics. Currently I am focusing on two things: leading machine learning team at OffWorld Inc. to train robots for space exploration, and finishing my PhD in neuroscience and artificial intelligence at University of Tartu.

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