Machine learning has shown incredible promise in robotics, with some notable recent demonstrations in manipulation and sim2real transfer. These results, however, require either an accurate a priori model (for simulation) or a large amount of data. In contrast, my lab is focused on enabling robots to enter novel environments and then, with minimal time to gather information, accomplish complex tasks. In this talk, I will argue that the hybrid or contact-driven nature of real-world robotics, where a robot must safely and quickly interact with objects, drives this high data requirement. In particular, the inductive biases inherent in standard learning methods fundamentally clash with the non-differentiable physics of contact-rich robotics. Focusing on model learning, or system identification, I will show both empirical and theoretical results which demonstrate that contact stiffness leads to poor training and generalization, leading to some healthy skepticism of simulation experiments trained on artificially soft environments. Fortunately, implicit learning formulations, which embed convex optimization problems, can dramatically reshape the optimization landscape for these stiff problems. By carefully reasoning about the roles of stiffness and discontinuity, and integrating non-smooth structures, we demonstrate dramatically improved learning performance. Within this family of approaches, ContactNets accurately identifies the geometry and dynamics of a six-sided cube bouncing, sliding, and rolling across a surface from only a handful of sample trajectories. Similarly, a piecewise-affine hybrid system with thousands of modes can be identified purely from state transitions. Time permitting, I'll discuss how these learned models can be deployed for control via recent results in real-time, multi-contact MPC.
Michael Posa is an Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania. He leads the Dynamic Autonomy and Intelligent Robotics (DAIR) lab, a group within the Penn GRASP laboratory. His group focuses on developing computationally tractable algorithms to enable robots to operate both dynamically and safely as they quickly maneuver through and interact with their environments, with applications including legged locomotion and manipulation. Michael received his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT in 2017, where, among his other research, he spent time on the MIT DARPA Robotics Challenge team. He received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University in 2007. Before his doctoral studies, he worked as an engineer at Vecna Robotics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, designing control algorithms for the BEAR humanoid robot. He has received the Best Paper award at Hybrid Systems: Computation and Control (HSCC) and been a finalist for a best paper award at IEEE Humanoids. He has also received Google Faculty Research Award in 2019 and the Young Faculty Researcher Award from the Toyota Research Institute in 2021.