Precision From Chaos: The Unexpected Strategy Behind Smarter Robots

Robot Maze Concept Art

Engineers at Northwestern University have created the MaxDiff RL algorithm, enhancing AI in robotics by allowing robots to explore randomly and learn efficiently. This method significantly boosts robots’ performance and reliability across various applications, demonstrating superior skills in tasks on the first try. (Artist’s concept.) Credit:

New AI algorithm for robots consistently outperforms state-of-the-art systems.

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Northwestern University
Established in 1851, Northwestern University (NU) is a private research university based in Evanston, Illinois, United States. Northwestern is known for its McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, Kellogg School of Management, Feinberg School of Medicine, Pritzker School of Law, Bienen School of Music, and Medill School of Journalism.&nbsp;

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{"attribute":"data-cmtooltip", "format":"html"}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>Northwestern University engineers have developed a new artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm designed specifically for smart robotics. By helping robots rapidly and reliably learn complex skills, the new method could significantly improve the practicality — and safety — of robots for a range of applications, including self-driving cars, delivery drones, household assistants, and automation.

Called Maximum Diffusion Reinforcement Learning (MaxDiff RL), the algorithm’s success lies in its ability to encourage robots to explore their environments as randomly as possible in order to gain a diverse set of experiences. This “designed randomness” improves the quality of data that robots collect regarding their own surroundings. And, by using higher-quality data, simulated robots demonstrated faster and more efficient learning, improving their overall reliability and performance.


Although the current study tested the AI algorithm only on simulated robots, the researchers have developed NoodleBot for future testing of the algorithm in the real world. Credit: Northwestern University

Superior Performance of MaxDiff RL

When tested against other AI platforms, simulated robots using Northwestern’s new algorithm consistently outperformed state-of-the-art models. The new algorithm works so well, in fact, that robots learned new tasks and then successfully performed them within a single attempt — getting it right the first time. This starkly contrasts current AI models, which enable slower learning through trial and error.


The research will be published today (May 2) in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence.

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Researchers tested the new AI algorithm’s performance with simulated robots, such as NoodleBot. Credit: Northwestern University

“Other AI frameworks can be somewhat unreliable,” said Northwestern’s Thomas Berrueta, who led the study. “Sometimes they will totally nail a task, but, other times, they will fail completely. With our framework, as long as the robot is capable of solving the task at all, every time you turn on your robot you can expect it to do exactly what it’s been asked to do. This makes it easier to interpret robot successes and failures, which is crucial in a world increasingly dependent on AI.”

Berrueta is a Presidential Fellow at Northwestern and a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering. Robotics expert Todd Murphey, a professor of mechanical engineering at McCormick and Berrueta’s adviser, is the paper’s senior author. Berrueta and Murphey co-authored the paper with Allison Pinosky, also a Ph.D. candidate in Murphey’s lab.

The Disembodied Disconnect

To train machine-learning algorithms, researchers and developers use large quantities of big data, which humans carefully filter and curate. AI learns from this training data, using trial and error until it reaches optimal results. While this process works well for disembodied systems, like ChatGPT and Google Gemini (formerly Bard), it does not work for embodied AI systems like robots. Robots, instead, collect data by themselves — without the luxury of human curators.

“Traditional algorithms are not compatible with robotics in two distinct ways,” Murphey said. “First, disembodied systems can take advantage of a world where physical laws do not apply. Second, individual failures have no consequences. For computer science applications, the only thing that matters is that it succeeds most of the time. In robotics, one failure could be catastrophic.”

To solve this disconnect, Berrueta, Murphey, and Pinosky aimed to develop a novel algorithm that ensures robots will collect high-quality data on-the-go. At its core, MaxDiff RL commands robots to move more randomly in order to collect thorough, diverse data about their environments. By learning through self-curated random experiences, robots acquire necessary skills to accomplish useful tasks.

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This video illustrates the single-shot learning capabilities of MaxDiff RL. Credit: Northwestern University

Getting It Right the First Time

To test the new algorithm, the researchers compared it against current, state-of-the-art models. Using computer simulations, the researchers asked simulated robots to perform a series of standard tasks. Across the board, robots using MaxDiff RL learned faster than the other models. They also correctly performed tasks much more consistently and reliably than others.

Perhaps even more impressive: Robots using the MaxDiff RL method often succeeded at correctly performing a task in a single attempt. And that’s even when they started with no knowledge.

“Our robots were faster and more agile — capable of effectively generalizing what they learned and applying it to new situations,” Berrueta said. “For real-world applications where robots can’t afford endless time for trial and error, this is a huge benefit.”

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The published study includes tests performed with simulated robots. Next, they will test the algorithm on robots in the real world. They developed this snake-like robot, called “NoodleBot,” for future testing. Credit: Northwestern University

Because MaxDiff RL is a general algorithm, it can be used for a variety of applications. The researchers hope it addresses foundational issues holding back the field, ultimately paving the way for reliable decision-making in smart robotics.

“This doesn’t have to be used only for robotic vehicles that move around,” Pinosky said. “It also could be used for stationary robots — such as a robotic arm in a kitchen that learns how to load the dishwasher. As tasks and physical environments become more complicated, the role of embodiment becomes even more crucial to consider during the learning process. This is an important step toward real systems that do more complicated, more interesting tasks.”

Reference: “Maximum diffusion reinforcement learning” 2 May 2024, Nature Machine Intelligence.
DOI: 10.1038/s42256-024-00829-3

The study was supported by the U.S. Army Research Office (grant number W911NF-19-1-0233) and the U.S. Office of Naval Research (grant number N00014-21-1-2706).