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Learning to Scaffold the Development of Robotic Manipulation Skills

by   Lin Shao, et al.

Learning contact-rich, robotic manipulation skills is a challenging problem due to the high-dimensionality of the state and action space as well as uncertainty from noisy sensors and inaccurate motor control. To combat these factors and achieve more robust manipulation, humans actively exploit contact constraints in the environment. By adopting a similar strategy, robots can also achieve more robust manipulation. In this paper, we enable a robot to autonomously modify its environment and thereby discover how to ease manipulation skill learning. Specifically, we provide the robot with fixtures that it can freely place within the environment. These fixtures provide hard constraints that limit the outcome of robot actions. Thereby, they funnel uncertainty from perception and motor control and scaffold manipulation skill learning. We propose a learning system that consists of two learning loops. In the outer loop, the robot positions the fixture in the workspace. In the inner loop, the robot learns a manipulation skill and after a fixed number of episodes, returns the reward to the outer loop. Thereby, the robot is incentivised to place the fixture such that the inner loop quickly achieves a high reward. We demonstrate our framework both in simulation and in the real world on three tasks: peg insertion, wrench manipulation and shallow-depth insertion. We show that manipulation skill learning is dramatically sped up through this way of scaffolding.


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