NeurIPS 2019
Sun Dec 8th through Sat the 14th, 2019 at Vancouver Convention Center
Paper ID:1357
Title:Learning to Control Self-Assembling Morphologies: A Study of Generalization via Modularity

Reviewer 1

Summary: This paper explores control with modular limbs which can change dynamically change their configurations as a part of their action space. This paper defines a limb, which can connect itself to other limbs and exert torques. It is a basic building block from which the agents construct their bodies. This paper limits the morphologies to tree like structures but could be generalized. A single controller neural network is shared across all of these limbs and therefore decisions about their actions are done in a distributed fashion. These limbs communicate in 1 direction when they are connected with a setup similar to an RNN. This agents successfully learn to connect into bigger bodies and solve tasks such as standing and locomotion. As baseline the paper chooses an agents which can the fully observe and act on all of the links. The experiments are aimed at showing a better generalization to novel scenarios than the baseline. However every algorithm is only run once and details of the task are not clearly described. The baseline algorithm fails to learn properly with the given number of limbs, which is unexpected given other work in the field on high-dof control systems. The results also do prove that this approach generalizes well across number of limbs. Specifically during locomotion the algorithm learns a policy which is very robust with respect to loosing limbs. Overall the idea is novel, the paper is largely well-written, and the positive results are promising. In particular the zero-shot generalization to a different number of limbs is a compelling result, which is not possible for non-modular architectures. The main caveat is that the baselines failed on all 3 tasks, which suggest a poor choice of evaluation domains or lack of effort on baseline performance. Comments: The idea and approach presented in this paper is very nice. These agents are modular and learn reassemble themselves according to the context. Also the application of Dynamic Graph Networks is nice as they are well matched to the problem. The choice of baseline also seems appropriate as it well represents the currently used approaches. In the explanation however I found several parts which I would have prefered to be clearer: Action space: The linking and unlinking is described at several places within the paper but it is not clear to me how exactly it works and which limbs is responsible for what. My understanding is that: linking is initiated by the parent, unlinking by the child and torques are determined by the parent. Does that mean that each child node connected to the same parent experiences the same torque? What happens when a node does not have any children? In classical control tasks (e.g. cheetah, humanoid) such torques would not be possible but the video shows a controllable single limb bodies. My only interpretation is that the torque is between the limb and the world which is not mentioned anywhere though. Also there is no explanation what coordinate frames are these torques in (ie. body or world). It would also be good to include a description of the range of the magnetic force and torque ranges. In second 43 of the video we see 2 limbs flying directly up which cannot be achieved by torques alone. Is the magnetic range longer than 1 link? Observation space: I miss a more detailed description of the observations. I assume the position 3-dim cartesian, but is unclear what is the representation for the rotation and whether there were any convolution layers applied to the 9*9 height grid or how big the grid was. Communication: You describe DNN as a comunication structure. However later it is described that the information only flows in 1 direction and accumulates along the links. This setup is more similar to a RNN than a GNN. It is not clear whether more communication architectures were tried and what was the reason to choose this one. Also it is not clear how the links manage to find each other at the beginning. The information is only shared across connected bodies and so they can dynamically decide how to meet. In stand up case they can "agree" on specific x-y coordinates but it is not clear how it can work in the locomotion case. Baselines and evaluation: This is very similar to a multi-agent setup which can be unstable to optimize and often have big fluctuations in their performance based on the random seed. The experiments as they are described are only ran once for each algorithm and seed which makes it hard to judge how big the gaps in the performance really are. The modularity provides a very clear advantages in terms of generalizations across number of lines but at the top of table 2 all the generalizations fall to >90% of their baseline performance. This would suggest that the biggest benefit might be the trainability of these systems. It is also not clear why the 6 link baselines failed to learn. The reasoning presented in the paper and supplementary material is that the action space was too big but 6 links * 3 actions = 18 dimensional action space which is comparable to humanoids where these agents still work. It was also not clear to me what the water environment is as both buoyancy and drag are mentioned.

Reviewer 2

As the authors note, the idea of reasoning over both the design of an agent and its control policy is not new, with work in the robotics community dating back at least several decades. However, the large majority of recent work has focused exclusively on control in the context of a given design, with particular emphasis on policies learned via deep RL. Some recent methods have been proposed within the robotics and learning communities that revisit the idea of joint optimization, either via model-based trajectory optimization or model-free RL approaches. This paper continues in this direction by considering the problem of including the agent’s morphology as part of the design space, which poses interesting optimization challenges due the fact that the space is discrete. The paper describes a framework for jointly optimizing over the space of morphologies and designs using RL (which is better suited to the challenges posed by the discrete-continuous space). Modifications to the morphology (attachment and detachment by individual links) are treated as part of the action space, with a policy that is aware of the dynamic structure of the agent. As noted, the paper considers an interesting problem (joint optimization over a hybrid discrete-continuous design and control space) and describes an approach that seems sensible (essentially, treating the ability to connect/disconnect from an adjacent link as another action). I find this to be a valuable contribution. However, the paper leaves several open questions that make it difficult to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of this approach. The paper provides few details regarding the specific nature of the architecture and the training procedure. Hybrid policies such as the one proposed have been found to be difficult to train, requiring careful thought about how one trades off between attachment/detachment and learning the control policy for the current morphology. Did the authors find the architecture to be similarly sensitive to this scheduling? The training and evaluation consider environments that are not standard in the community. The need for a new environment is attributed to limitations of existing environments when it comes to modifications to the topology. This is unfortunate as this makes it difficult to judge the richness of the environment (e.g., are ground contact forces modeled? How about contact between limbs?). It is not clear why environments built around Mujoco or PyBullet (e.g., OpenAI Gym) would not allow for variations in the topology. The paper makes vague references to “messages” communicated between limbs, but the nature of these messages is not clear (as is their relationship to the claim that limbs aren’t aware of other limbs). The proposed framework is evaluated relative to baselines, however the baselines are weak. They include designs hand-crafted by the authors rather than design experts and the fact that the task is solvable with these designs isn’t sufficient to justify their choice. It would be more appropriate to consider a baseline that operated on random morphologies and one that employed Bayesian optimization (an evolutionary approach would be fitting). Given the relative small space of topologies, a random baseline would presumably perform fairly well. I was surprised not to see a qualitative evaluation of the learned morphologies as well as the learned motion policies for the different settings. The related work discussion is fairly thorough, with references to relevant decades-old work from the robotics community, which is refreshing. However, I would like to see a more thorough discussion relative to recent work on joint optimization of design and control and call into question the statement that work by Schaff et. al is “concurrent work” as it first appeared in January 2018. At today’s rate, 14+ months is hardly concurrent work. ADDITIONAL COMMENTS/QUESTIONS * It isn’t clear how much the controller on each link knows about the overall morphology. In lines 97-98, it is stated that each limb does not know about other limbs (though it has access to a sensor that indicates whether or not it is connected to another limb?), yet the controller on each limb reasons over the morphology. Aren’t these two things inconsistent. * About which axis is the surface height grid projected? * The distinction between using vs. not using messages is not clear as this would be a design decision at the outset. * The paper should report the standard deviation of the reward at test time. MINOR: There are a few grammatical errors (e.g., lines 81, )

Reviewer 3

The paper looked into an interesting problem of training self-assembling modularized robots and investigated the generalization of different training methods. Though there has been work in self-assembling robots or training modular robots with graph neural networks, training modular robots that can change its morphology through self-assembling is novel in my knowledge. The paper is well written and easy to follow. The experiments shown in this work consists of two tasks: stand up and locomotion, and the resulting policies are tested to generalize to different perturbations and morphologies. One question I have about the method is that it’s not completely clear to me how important the self-assembling part is to the generalization of the resulting policy? For example, if during training, one uses the graph neural networks representation and trains on a set of manually designed morphologies, is it also going to generalize to other morphologies? Another question about the implementation of the self-assembling robot. From the video it seems that the robot sometimes breaks apart into multiple parts. Are those cases all due to the individual agent producing the unlink action, or the robot might break in other conditions (like due to large external force, or being taken by another link). In general it might be interesting to visualize the actions of linking and unlinking during the rollout. Overall, I think this is an interesting paper with impressive results.