Cathy Wu is the Gilbert W. Winslow Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a member of the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. As an undergraduate, Wu won MIT’s toughest robotics competition, and as a graduate student took the University of California at Berkeley’s first-ever course on deep reinforcement learning. Now back at MIT, she’s working to improve the flow of robots in Amazon warehouses under the Science Hub, a new collaboration between the tech giant and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Outside of the lab and classroom, Wu can be found running, drawing, pouring lattes at home, and watching YouTube videos on math and infrastructure via 3Blue1Brown and Practical Engineering. She recently took a break from all of that to talk about her work.
Q: How is deep reinforcement learning, combining deep and reinforcement learning algorithms, changing robotics?
A: I took John Schulman and Pieter Abbeel’s reinforcement learning class at Berkeley in 2015 shortly after Deepmind published their breakthrough paper in Nature. They had trained an agent via deep learning and reinforcement learning to play "Space Invaders" and a suite of Atari games at superhuman levels. That created quite some buzz. A year later, I started to incorporate reinforcement learning into problems involving mixed traffic systems, in which only some cars are automated. I realized that classical control techniques couldn’t handle the complex nonlinear control problems I was formulating.
Deep RL is now mainstream but it’s by no means pervasive in robotics, which still relies heavily on classical model-based control and planning methods. Deep learning continues to be important for processing raw sensor data like camera images and radio waves, and reinforcement learning is gradually being incorporated. I see traffic systems as gigantic multi-robot systems. I’m excited for an upcoming collaboration with Utah’s Department of Transportation to apply reinforcement learning to coordinate cars with traffic signals, reducing congestion and thus carbon emissions.
Q: In your project with Amazon you’re training warehouse robots to pick up, sort, and deliver goods. What are the technical challenges?
A: This project involves assigning robots to a given task and routing them there. [Professor] Cynthia Barnhart’s team is focused on task assignment, and mine, on path planning. Both problems are considered combinatorial optimization problems because the solution involves a combination of choices. As the number of tasks and robots increases, the number of possible solutions grows exponentially. It’s called the curse of dimensionality. Both problems are what we call NP Hard; there may not be an efficient algorithm to solve them. Our goal is to devise a shortcut.
Routing a single robot for a single task isn’t difficult. It’s like using Google Maps to find the shortest path home. It can be solved efficiently with several algorithms, including Dijkstra’s. But warehouses resemble small cities with hundreds of robots. When traffic jams occur, customers can’t get their packages as quickly. Our goal is to develop algorithms that find the most efficient paths for all of the robots.
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