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

© Russ Tedrake, 2024

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**Note:** These are working notes used for a course being taught
at MIT. They will be updated throughout the Spring 2024 semester. Lecture videos are available on YouTube.

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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.

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, $\bx(0).$

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.

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 problem

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}

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
variables

The following example was given in

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
complement

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?

Although convexity is sufficient to guarantee that an optimization
landscape does not have any local minima, it is not actually necessary.

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*

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).

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: $$(\bA - \bB\bK)^T{\bf P} + {\bf P}(\bA - \bB\bK) + \bQ + \bK^T\bR\bK = 0.$$

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.

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.

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

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, and which will not have a smooth change of variables which makes them
convex. The case of static output
feedback is an important one. There are many other known counter-examples.

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

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.

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

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...

- "H2 {Optimal} {Control}", Encyclopedia of {Systems} and {Control} , pp. 515--520, 2015. ,
- "Global Convergence of Policy Gradient Methods for the Linear Quadratic Regulator", International Conference on Machine Learning , 2018. ,
- "Dissipativity and performance analysis of smart dampers via LMI synthesis", Structural Control and Health Monitoring: The Official Journal of the International Association for Structural Control and Monitoring and of the European Association for the Control of Structures, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 471--496, 2007. ,
- "Global exponential convergence of gradient methods over the nonconvex landscape of the linear quadratic regulator", 2019 IEEE 58th Conference on Decision and Control (CDC) , pp. 7474--7479, 2019. ,
- "Linear convergence of gradient and proximal-gradient methods under the polyak-{\l}ojasiewicz condition", Joint European Conference on Machine Learning and Knowledge Discovery in Databases , pp. 795--811, 2016. ,
- "Policy Optimization for ℋ₂ Linear Control with ℋ∞ Robustness Guarantee: Implicit Regularization and Global Convergence", Proceedings of the 2nd Conference on Learning for Dynamics and Control , vol. 120, pp. 179--190, 10--11 Jun, 2020. ,
- "On the Theory of Policy Gradient Methods: Optimality, Approximation, and Distribution Shift", , 2020. ,
- "Feedback Controller Parameterizations for Reinforcement Learning", Proceedings of the 2011 IEEE Symposium on Adaptive Dynamic Programming and Reinforcement Learning (ADPRL) , 2011. [ link ] ,
- "Global {Optimality} {Guarantees} {For} {Policy} {Gradient} {Methods}", arXiv:1906.01786 [cs, stat], oct, 2020. ,
- "Simulation and the Monte Carlo method", John Wiley \& Sons , vol. 10, 2016. ,

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