Reinforcement Learning with Elastic Time Steps


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Traditional Reinforcement Learning (RL) algorithms are usually applied in robotics to learn controllers that act with a fixed control rate. Given the discrete nature of RL algorithms, they are oblivious to the effects of the choice of control rate: finding the correct control rate can be difficult and mistakes often result in excessive use of computing resources or even lack of convergence. We propose Soft Elastic Actor-Critic (SEAC), a novel off-policy actor-critic algorithm to address this issue. SEAC implements elastic time steps, time steps with a known, variable duration, which allow the agent to change its control frequency to adapt to the situation. In practice, SEAC applies control only when necessary, minimizing computational resources and data usage. We evaluate SEAC's capabilities in simulation in a Newtonian kinematics maze navigation task and on a 3D racing video game, Trackmania. SEAC outperforms the SAC baseline in terms of energy efficiency and overall time management, and most importantly without the need to identify a control frequency for the learned controller. SEAC demonstrated faster and more stable training speeds than SAC, especially at control rates where SAC struggled to converge. We also compared SEAC with a similar approach, the Continuous-Time Continuous-Options (CTCO) model, and SEAC resulted in better task performance. These findings highlight the potential of SEAC for practical, real-world RL applications in robotics.
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