Underactuated Robotics

Algorithms for Walking, Running, Swimming, Flying, and Manipulation

Russ Tedrake

© Russ Tedrake, 2022
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Note: These are working notes used for a course being taught at MIT. They will be updated throughout the Spring 2022 semester. Lecture videos are available on YouTube.

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Policy Search

In our case study on perching aircraft, we solved a challenging control problem, but our approach to control design was based on only linear optimal control (around an optimized trajectory). We've also discussed some approaches to nonlinear optimal control that could scale beyond small, discretized state spaces. These were based on estimating the cost-to-go function, including value iteration using function approximation and approximate dynamic programming as a linear program or as a sums-of-squares program.

There are a lot of things to like about methods that estimate the cost-to-go function (aka value function). The cost-to-go function reduces the long-term planning problem into a one-step planning problem; it encodes all relevant information about the future (and nothing more). The HJB gives us optimality conditions for the cost-to-go that give us a strong algorithmic handle to work with.

In this chapter, we will explore another very natural idea: let us parameterize a controller with some decision variables, and then search over those decision variables directly in order to achieve a task and/or optimize a performance objective. One specific motivation for this approach is the (admittedly somewhat anecdotal) observation that often times simple policies can perform very well on complicated robots and with potentially complicated cost-to-go functions.

We'll refer to this broad class of methods as "policy search" or, when optimization methods are used, we'll sometimes use "policy optimization". This idea has not received quite as much attention from the controls community, probably because we know many relatively simple cases where it does not work well. But it has become very popular again lately due to the empirical success of "policy gradient" algorithms in reinforcement learning (RL). This chapter includes a discussion of the "model-based" version of these RL policy-gradient algorithms; we'll describe their "model-free" versions in a future chapter.

Problem formulation

Consider a static full-state feedback policy, $$\bu = \bpi_\balpha(\bx),$$ where $\bpi$ is potentially a nonlinear function, and $\balpha$ is the vector of parameters that describe the controller. The control might take time as an input, or might even have it's own internal state, but let's start with this simple form.

Using our prescription for optimal control using additive costs, we can evaluate the performance of this controller from any initial condition using, e.g.: \begin{align*} J_\balpha(\bx) =& \int_0^\infty \ell(\bx(t), \bu(t)) dt, \\ \subjto \quad & \dot\bx = f(\bx, \bu), \quad \bu = \bpi_\balpha(\bx), \quad \bx(0) = \bx.\end{align*} In order to provide a scalar cost for each set of policy parameters, $\balpha$, we need one more piece: a relative importance for the different initial conditions.

As we will further elaborate when we discuss stochastic optimal control, a very natural choice -- one that preserves the recursive structure of the HJB -- is to optimize the expected value of the cost, given some distribution over initial conditions: $$\min_\balpha E_{\bx \sim {\mathcal X}_0} \left[J_\balpha(\bx) \right],$$ where ${\mathcal X}_0$ is a probability distribution over initial conditions, $\bx(0).$

Linear Quadratic Regulator

To start thinking about the problem of searching directly in the policy parameters, it's very helpful to start with a problem we know and can understand well. In LQR problems for linear, time-invariant systems, we know that the optimal policy is a linear function: $\bu = -{\bf K}\bx.$ So far, we have always obtained ${\bf K}$ indirectly -- by solving a Riccati equation to find the cost-to-go and then backing out the optimizing policy. Here, let us study the case where we parameterize the elements of ${\bf K}$ as decision variables, and attempt to optimize the expected cost-to-go directly.

Policy Evaluation

First, let's evaluate our objective for a given ${\bf K}$. This step is known as "policy evaluation". If we use a Gaussian with mean zero and covariance ${\bf \Omega}$ as our distribution over initial conditions, then for LQR we have \begin{align*} & E\left[ \int_0^\infty [\bx^T{\bf Q}\bx + \bu^T\bR\bu] dt \right], \\ \subjto \quad & \dot\bx = {\bf A}\bx + {\bf B}\bu, \quad \bu = - {\bf K}\bx, \quad \bx(0) \sim \mathcal{N}(0, {\bf \Omega}).\end{align*} This problem is also known as the $\mathcal{H}_2$ optimal control problemChen15a, since the expected-cost-to-go here is the $\mathcal{H}_2$-norm of the linear system from disturbance input (here only an impulse that generates our initial conditions) to performance output (which here would be e.g. $\bz = \begin{bmatrix} \bQ^{\frac{1}{2}}\bx \\ \bR^{\frac{1}{2}}\bu \end{bmatrix}).$

To evaluate a policy $\bK$, let us first re-arrange the cost function slightly, using the properties of the matrix trace: \begin{gather*} \bx^T\bQ\bx + \bx^T\bK^T\bR\bK\bx = \bx^T(\bQ + \bK^T\bR\bK)\bx^T = \trace\left((\bQ + \bK^T\bR\bK)\bx\bx^T\right), \end{gather*} and the linearity of the integral and expected value: $$E\left[ \int_0^\infty \trace((\bQ + \bK^T\bR\bK)\bx\bx^T) dt \right] = \trace\left((\bQ + \bK^T\bR\bK) E \left[\int_0^\infty \bx\bx^T dt \right]\right),$$ For any given initial condition, the solution of the closed-loop dynamics is given by the matrix exponential: $$\bx(t) = e^{(\bA - \bB\bK)t}\bx(0).$$ For the distribution of initial conditions, we have \begin{gather*} \\ E\left[\bx(t)\bx(t)^T\right] = e^{(\bA - \bB\bK)t} E\left[\bx(0)\bx(0)^T\right] e^{(\bA - \bB\bK)^Tt} = e^{(\bA - \bB\bK)t} {\bf \Omega} e^{(\bA - \bB\bK)^Tt}, \end{gather*} which is just a (symmetric) matrix function of $t$. The integral of this function, call it ${\bf X}$, represents the expected 'energy' of the closed-loop response: $${\bf X} = E\left[ \int_0^\infty \bx \bx^T dt \right].$$ Assuming $\bK$ is stabilizing, ${\bf X}$ can be computed as the (unique) solution to the Lyapunov equation: $$(\bA - \bB\bK){\bf X} + {\bf X}(\bA - \bB\bK)^T + {\bf \Omega} = 0.$$ (You can see a closely related derivation here). Finally, the total policy evaluation is given by \begin{equation}E_{\bx \sim \mathcal{N}(0,{\bf \Omega})} [J_\bK(\bx)] = \trace\left((\bQ + \bK^T\bR\bK){\bf X}\right)\label{eq:lqr_evaluation}.\end{equation}

A nonconvex objective in ${\bf K}$

Unfortunately, the Lyapunov equation represents a nonlinear constraint (on the pair $\bK$, ${\bf X}$). Indeed, it is well known that even the set of controllers that stabilizing a linear systems can be nonconvex in the parameters $\bK$ when there are 3 or more state variablesFazel18.

The set of stabilizing $\bK$ can be non-convex

The following example was given in Fazel18. Consider a discrete-time linear system with $\bA = {\bf I}_{3 \times 3}, \bB = {\bf I}_{3 \times 3}$. The controllers given by $${\bf K}_1 = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 0 & -10 \\ -1 & 1 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \end{bmatrix} \quad \text{and} \quad \bK_2 = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & -10 & 0 \\ 0 & 1 & 0 \\ -1 & 0 & 1 \end{bmatrix},$$ are both stabilizing controllers for this system (all eigenvalues of $\bA - \bB\bK$ are inside the unit circle of the complex plane). However the controller $\hat{\bK} = (\bK_1 + \bK_2)/2$ has two eigenvalues outside the unit circle.

Since the set of controllers that achieve finite total cost is non-convex, clearly the cost function we consider here is also non-convex.

As an aside, for this problem we do actually know a change of variables that make the problem convex. Let's introduce a new variable ${\bf Y} = {\bf KX}.$ Since ${\bf X}$ is PSD, we can back out $\bK = {\bf YX}^{-1}.$ Now we can rewrite the optimization: \begin{align*} \min_{{\bf X}, {\bf Y}} & \quad \trace{\bQ^\frac{1}{2} {\bf X} \bQ^\frac{1}{2}} + \trace{\bR^\frac{1}{2} {\bf Y} {\bf X}^{-1} {\bf Y}^T \bR^\frac{1}{2}} \\ \subjto & \quad \bA{\bf X} - \bB{\bf Y} + {\bf X}\bA^T - {\bf Y}^T\bB^T + {\bf \Omega} = 0, \\ & \quad {\bf X} \succ 0.\end{align*} The second term in the objective appears to be nonconvex, but is actually convex. In order to write it as a SDP, we can replace it exactly with one more slack variable, ${\bf Z}$, and a Schur complementJohnson07: \begin{align*} \min_{{\bf X}, {\bf Y}, {\bf Z}} & \quad \trace{\bQ^\frac{1}{2} {\bf X} \bQ^\frac{1}{2}} + \trace{\bf Z} \\ \subjto & \quad \bA{\bf X} - \bB{\bf Y} + {\bf X}\bA^T - {\bf Y}^T\bB^T + {\bf \Omega} = 0, \\ & \quad \begin{bmatrix} {\bf Z} & \bR^\frac{1}{2} {\bf Y} \\ {\bf Y}^T \bR^\frac{1}{2} & {\bf X} \end{bmatrix} \succeq 0.\end{align*}

Nevertheless, our original question is asking about searching directly in the original parameterization, $\bK$. If the objective in nonconvex in those parameters, then how should we perform the search?

No local minima

Although convexity is sufficient to guarantee that an optimization landscape does not have any local minima, it is not actually necessary. Fazel18 showed that for this LQR objective, all local optima are in fact global optima. This analysis was extended in Mohammadi19 to give a simpler analysis and include convergence rates.

How does one show that an optimization landscape has no local minima (even though it may be non-convex)? One of the most popular tools is to demonstrate gradient dominance with the famous Polyak-Lojasiewicz (PL) inequality Karimi16. For an optimization problem $$\min_{\bx \in \Re^d} f(\bx)$$ we first assume the function $f$ is $L$-smooth (Lipschitz gradients): $$\forall \bx,\bx', \quad \| \nabla f(\bx') - \nabla f(\bx) \|_2 \le L \| \bx' - \bx \|_2.$$ Then we say that the function satisfies the PL-inequality if the following holds for some $\mu > 0$: $$\forall \bx, \quad \frac{1}{2} \| \nabla f(\bx) \|_F^2 \ge \mu (f(\bx) - f^*),$$ where $f^*$ is a value obtained at the optima. In words, the gradient of the objective must grow faster than the gradient of a quadratic function. Note, however, that the distance here is measured in $f(\bx)$, not $\bx$; we do not require (nor imply) that the optimal solution is unique. It clearly implies that for any minima, $\bx'$ with $\nabla f(x') = 0$, since the left-hand side is zero, we must have the right-hand side also be zero, so $x'$ is also a global optima: $f(x') = f^*$.

A nonconvex function with no local minima

Consider the function $$f(x) = x^2 + 3 \sin^2(x).$$

We can establish that this function is not convex by observing that for $a=\frac{\pi}{4}$, $b=\frac{3\pi}{4}$, we have $$f\left(\frac{a+b}{2}\right) = \frac{\pi^2}{4} + 3 \approx 5.47 > \frac{f(a)+f(b)}{2} = \frac{5\pi^2}{16} + \frac{3}{2} \approx 4.58.$$

We can establish the PL conditions using the gradient $$\nabla f(x) = 2x + 6 \sin(x) \cos(x).$$ We can establish that this function is $L$-smooth with $L=8$ by $$\| \nabla f(b) - \nabla f(a) \|_2 = |2b - 2a + 6\sin(b-a)| \le 8|b - a|,$$ because $\sin(x) \le x.$ Finally, we have gradient-dominance from the PL-inequality: $$\frac{1}{2}(2x+6\sin(x)\cos(x))^2 \ge \mu(x^2 + 3\sin^2(x)),$$ with $\mu=0.175$. (I confirmed this with a small dReal program).

Karimi16 gives a convergence rate for convergence to an optima for gradient descent given the PL conditions. Mohammadi19 showed that the gradients of the LQR cost we examine here with respect to $\bK$ satisfy the PL conditions on any sublevel set of the cost-to-go function.

True gradient descent

The results described above suggest that one can use gradient descent to obtain the optimal controller, $\bK^*$ for LQR. For the variations we've seen so far (where we know the model), I would absolutely recommend that solving the Riccati equations is a much better algorithm; it is faster and more robust, with no parameters like step-size to tune. But gradient descent becomes more interesting / viable when we think of it as a model for a less perfect algorithm, e.g. where the plant model is not given and the gradients are estimated from noisy samples.

It is a rare luxury, due here to our ability to integrate the linear plants/controllers, quadratic costs, and Gaussian initial conditions, that we could compute the value function exactly in (\ref{eq:lqr_evaluation}). We can also compute the true gradient -- this is a pinnacle of exactness we should strive for in our methods but will rarely achieve again. The gradient is given by $$\pd{E[J_\bK(\bx)]}{\bK} = 2(\bR\bK - \bB^T{\bf P}){\bf X},$$ where ${\bf P}$ satisfies another Lyapunov equation: $$(\bA - \bB\bK)^T{\bf P} + {\bf P}(\bA - \bB\bK) + \bQ + \bK^T\bR\bK = 0.$$

cite Jack if/when we publish our draft

Note that the term policy gradient used in reinforcement learning typically refers to the slightly different class of algorithms I hinted at above. In those algorithms, we use the true gradients of the policy (only), but estimate the remainder of the terms in the gradient through sampling. These methods typically require many samples to estimate the gradients we compute here, and should only be weaker (less efficient) than the algorithms in this chapter. The papers investigating the convergence of gradient descent for LQR have also started exploring these cases. We will study these so-called model-free" policy search algorithms soon.

More convergence results and counter-examples

LQR / $\mathcal{H}_2$ control is one of the good cases, where we know that for the objective parameterized directly in $\bK$, all local optima are global optima. Zhang20 extended this result for mixed $\mathcal{H}_2/\mathcal{H}_\infty$ control. Agarwal20a gives a recent treatment of the tabular (finite) MDP case.

For LQR, we also know alternative parameterizations of the controller which make the objective actually convex, including the LMI formulation and the Youla parameterization. Their utility in a policy search setting was studied initially in Roberts11.

Unfortunately, we do not expect these nice properties to hold in general. There are a number of nearby problems which are known to be nonconvex in the original parameters. The case of static output feedback is an important one. If we extend our plant model to include (potentially limited) observations: $\dot\bx = \bA\bx + \bB\bu, \by = \bC\bx,$ then searching directly over controllers, $\bu = -{\bf K}\by$, is known to be NP-hardBlondel97. This time, the set of stabilizing ${\bf K}$ matrices may be not only nonconvex, but actually disconnected. We can see that with a simple example (given to me once during a conversation with Alex Megretski).

Parameterizations of Static Output Feedback

Consider the single-input, single-output LTI system $$\dot{\bx} = {\bf A}\bx + {\bf B} u, \quad y = {\bf C}\bx,$$ with $${\bf A} = \begin{bmatrix} 0 & 0 & 2 \\ 1 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 1 & 0\end{bmatrix}, \quad {\bf B} = \begin{bmatrix} 1 \\ 0 \\ 0 \end{bmatrix}, \quad {\bf C} = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 1 & 3 \end{bmatrix}.$$ Here the linear static-output-feedback policy can be written as $u = -ky$, with a single scalar parameter $k$.

Here is a plot of the maximum eigenvalue (real-part) of the closed-loop system, as a function of $k$. The system is only stable when this maximum value is less than zero. You'll find the set of stabilizing $k$'s is a disconnected set.

There are many other known counter-examples. Bhandari20 gives a particularly simple one with a two state MDP. One of the big open questions is whether deep network parameterizations are an example of a good case.

Trajectory-based policy search

Although we cannot expect gradient descent to converge to a global minima in general, it is still very reasonable to try using gradient descent to find policies for more complicated nonlinear control problems. In the general form, this means that the first step of optimizing $$\min_\balpha E_{\bx \sim {\mathcal X}_0} \left[J_\balpha(\bx) \right],$$ is estimating $$\pd{}{\balpha} E_{\bx \sim {\mathcal X}_0} \left[J_\balpha(\bx) \right].$$ In the LQR problem, we were able to compute these terms exactly; with the biggest simplification coming from the fact that the response of a linear system to Gaussian initial conditions stays Gaussian. This is not true for more general nonlinear systems. So what are we to do?

The most common/general technique (despite it not being very efficient), is to approximate the expected cost-to-go using a sampling (Monte-Carlo) approximation using a large number, $N$, of samples: $$E_{\bx \sim {\mathcal X}_0}[J_\balpha(\bx)] \approx \frac{1}{N} \sum_{i=0}^{N-1} J_\balpha(\bx_i), \quad \bx_i \sim \mathcal{X}_0.$$ The gradients follow easily: $$\pd{}{\balpha} E_{\bx \sim {\mathcal X}_0}[J_\balpha(\bx)] \approx \frac{1}{N} \sum_{i=0}^{N-1} \pd{J_\balpha(\bx_i)}{\balpha}, \quad \bx_i \sim \mathcal{X}_0.$$ Our confidence in the accuracy of this estimate will improve as we increase $N$; see e.g. Section 4.2 of Rubinstein16 for details on the confidence intervals. The most optimistic among us will say that it's quite fine to have only a noisy estimate of the gradient -- this leads to stochastic gradient descent which can have some very desirable properties. But it does make the algorithm harder to analyze and debug.

Using the Monte-Carlo estimator, the total gradient update is just a sum over gradients with respect to particular initial conditions, $\pd{J_\balpha(\bx_i)}{\balpha}.$ But for finite-horizon objectives, these are precisely the gradients that we have already studied in the context of trajectory optimization. They can be computed efficiently using an adjoint method. The difference is that here we think of $\balpha$ as the parameters of a feedback controller, whereas before we thought of them as the parameters of a trajectory, but this makes no difference to the chain rule.

LQR with true gradients vs approximate gradients

Pendulum Swing-Up And Balance

Reference Guided Policy Search, etc (see Robert V's review); PILCO and PIPPS (arxiv from Doya).

Infinite-horizon objectives

by adding an approximate cost-to-go as the terminal cost.

Search strategies for global optimization

To combat local minima... Evolutionary strategies, ...

Evolutionary strategies with gradients? Bayesian optimization? Others?

Policy Iteration

In the chapter on Lyapunov analysis we also explored a handful techniques for control design. One of these even directly parameterized the controller (as a polynomial feedback), and used alternations to switch between policy evaluation and policy optimization. Another generated lower-bounds to the optimal cost-to-go.

Coming soon...

DK iterations LSPI (e.g. w/ linear function approximation), Zhouran, etc. Shen's work?


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  7. Alekh Agarwal and Sham M. Kakade and Jason D. Lee and Gaurav Mahajan, "On the Theory of Policy Gradient Methods: Optimality, Approximation, and Distribution Shift", , 2020.

  8. John Roberts and Ian Manchester and Russ Tedrake, "Feedback Controller Parameterizations for Reinforcement Learning", Proceedings of the 2011 IEEE Symposium on Adaptive Dynamic Programming and Reinforcement Learning (ADPRL) , 2011. [ link ]

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  10. Jalaj Bhandari and Daniel Russo, "Global {Optimality} {Guarantees} {For} {Policy} {Gradient} {Methods}", arXiv:1906.01786 [cs, stat], oct, 2020.

  11. Reuven Y Rubinstein and Dirk P Kroese, "Simulation and the Monte Carlo method", John Wiley \& Sons , vol. 10, 2016.

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