Purdue University Graduate School
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Robots have become increasingly common in various sectors, such as manufacturing, healthcare, and service industries. With the growing demand for automation and the expectation for interactive and assistive capabilities, robots must learn to adapt to unpredictable environments like humans can. This necessitates the development of learning methods that can effectively enable robots to collaborate with humans, learn from them, and provide guidance. Human experts commonly teach their collaborators to perform tasks via a few demonstrations, often followed by episodes of coaching that refine the trainee’s performance during practice. Adopting a similar approach that facilitates interactions to teaching robots is highly intuitive and enables task experts to teach the robots directly. Learning from Demonstration (LfD) is a popular method for robots to learn tasks by observing human demonstrations. However, for contact-rich tasks such as cleaning, cutting, or writing, LfD alone is insufficient to achieve a good performance. Further, LfD methods are developed to achieve observed goals while ignoring actions to maximize efficiency. By contrast, we recognize that leveraging human social learning strategies of practice and coaching in conjunction enables learning tasks with improved performance and efficacy. To address the deficiencies of learning from demonstration, we propose a Coaching by Demonstration (CbD) framework that integrates LfD-based practice with sparse coaching interactions from a human expert.

The LfD-based practice in CbD was implemented as an end-to-end off-policy reinforcement learning (RL) agent with the action space and rewards inferred from the demonstration. By modeling the reward as a similarity network trained on expert demonstrations, we eliminate the need for designing task-specific engineered rewards. Representation learning was leveraged to create a novel state feature that captures interaction markers necessary for performing contact-rich skills. This LfD-based practice was combined with coaching, where the human expert can improve or correct the objectives through a series of interactions. The dynamics of interaction in coaching are formalized using a partially observable Markov decision process. The robot aims to learn the true objectives by observing the corrective feedback from the human expert. We provide an approximate solution by reducing this to a policy parameter update using KL divergence between the RL policy and a Gaussian approximation based on coaching. The proposed framework was evaluated on a dataset of 10 contact-rich tasks from the assembly (peg-insertion), service (cleaning, writing, peeling), and medical domains (cricothyroidotomy, sonography). Compared to baselines of behavioral cloning and reinforcement learning algorithms, CbD demonstrates improved performance and efficiency.

During the learning process, the demonstrations and coaching feedback imbue the robot with expert knowledge of the task. To leverage this expertise, we develop a reverse coaching model where the robot can leverage knowledge from demonstrations and coaching corrections to provide guided feedback to human trainees to improve their performance. Providing feedback adapted to individual trainees' "style" is vital to coaching. To this end, we have proposed representing style as objectives in the task null space. Unsupervised clustering of the null-space trajectories using Gaussian mixture models allows the robot to learn different styles of executing the same skill. Given the coaching corrections and style clusters database, a style-conditioned RL agent was developed to provide feedback to human trainees by coaching their execution using virtual fixtures. The reverse coaching model was evaluated on two tasks, a simulated incision and obstacle avoidance through a haptic teleoperation interface. The model improves human trainees’ accuracy and completion time compared to a baseline without corrective feedback. Thus, by taking advantage of different human-social learning strategies, human-robot collaboration can be realized in human-centric environments. 


Amazon Research Award

NSF RoseHub Award No. 1439717

US Army Medical Research and Material Command, under Award No. W81XWH-18-1-0769


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Engineering Technology

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Richard M. Voyles

Additional Committee Member 2

Juan P. Wachs

Additional Committee Member 3

Xiumin Diao

Additional Committee Member 4

Mo Rastgaar