Exploring the effects of robotic design on learning and neural control

Joshua Powers, University of Vermont


The ongoing deep learning revolution has allowed computers to outclass humans in various games and perceive features imperceptible to humans during classification tasks. Current machine learning techniques have clearly distinguished themselves in specialized tasks. However, we have yet to see robots capable of performing multiple tasks at an expert level. Most work in this field is focused on the development of more sophisticated learning algorithms for a robot’s controller given a largely static and presupposed robotic design. By focusing on the development of robotic bodies, rather than neural controllers, I have discovered that robots can be designed such that they overcome many of the current pitfalls encountered by neural controllers in multitask settings. Through this discovery, I also present novel metrics to explicitly measure the learning ability of a robotic design and its resistance to common problems such as catastrophic interference.Traditionally, the physical robot design requires human engineers to plan every aspect of the system, which is expensive and often relies on human intuition. In contrast, within the field of evolutionary robotics, evolutionary algorithms are used to automatically create optimized designs, however, such designs are often still limited in their ability to perform in a multitask setting. The metrics created and presented here give a novel path to automated design that allow evolved robots to synergize with their controller to improve the computational efficiency of their learning while overcoming catastrophic interference. Overall, this dissertation intimates the ability to automatically design robots that are more general purpose than current robots and that can perform various tasks while requiring less computation.