The epic quest to Embodied AI and general-purpose robots

16 Jun 2024 Boyuan Chen

Recently, I watched the documentary "Sixty Years of Artificial Intelligence at Stanford." From 1962 to 2022, robotics or embodied intelligence research has been integral to the development of artificial intelligence from day one. By 2023, most of the problems proposed during these sixty years, from chess to vision and speech recognition, have been solved—except for robotics. The question of how to create a general-purpose robot is one that I ponder day and night. While conducting research can be exhausting, contemplating this question is exhilarating.

2023 can be considered the inaugural year for embodied intelligence gaining recognition in the capital market. This surge in popularity means I no longer need to explain to every VC that our ultimate ideal is not to create a mechanical shell, but rather an intelligence yet physical "person" that can completely liberate human labor in the future. Historically, the popularity of every emerging technology has been accompanied by both opportunities and bubbles. As a doctoral student at the MIT Embodied Intelligence Laboratory,I hope this essay will help practitioners worldwide better and more rationally understand the opportunities and challenges of embodied intelligence, fostering sustainable development in the field.

Large models represented by ChatGPT have given us a glimpse of the future. Robot large models have appeared in almost every robotics company's presentation slides over the past year. Papers like PaLM-E,RT1,RT2 have also demonstrated the vision of large models directly outputting control signals. So, will the approach of large language models bring us general-purpose robots? To answer this question, I'd like to expand the term "large model" into "large models and big data." Large language models not only require billions of neural network parameters but also need to be pre-trained on vast amounts of internet data. For example, open-source large language models like Llama3 used 15 trillion tokens for pre-training alone. In comparison, data collection for robots is much more challenging. People naturally generate data in these two modalities by taking photos and writing text on the internet every day. You might take a photo of a fancy meal and post it on social media, but you would never write in the caption, "My thumb joints rotated 30 degrees, 20 degrees, and 45 degrees respectively to pick up the fork." I believe that with enough high-quality robotic data, robot large models could absolutely bring near-general generalization, but where to obtain robotic action data is a less than optimistic issue—the generalization of these large models that directly output action modalities is thus very limited. This problem still exists even in relatively mature multimodal models like VLMs - The paper SpatialVLM, developed during my internship at Google DeepMind, found that the best multimodal large models often confuse left and right. Therefore, it can be inferred that many current "robot large models" with action modality output can manipulate mechanical hands correctly to move left or right, likely only because they have overfitted on limited action data, rather than magically generalizing due to the integration with text-image foundation models.

The good news is that both industry and academia are working to address the lack of action data. Many scholars, including myself, are willing to summarize these efforts in two dimensions: dexterity and generalization. Dexterity mainly reflects how difficult tasks a robot can accomplish in a single scenario with relatively fixed tasks, such as using the same pencil sharpener to sharpen the same pencil placed in roughly the same position on the same table. Generalization, on the other hand, studies how to enable robots to perform new tasks in new scenarios, even if these tasks seem very simple or stupid, such as being able to use hands to push any specified pencil to a designated place on any table in any room. Enabling robots to possess both dexterity and generalization is the ultimate goal of embodied intelligence.

Currently, the hottest direction in the dexterity dimension is behavior cloning in imitation learning—relying on manually collected joint action data and then training robots using supervised learning methods. At the hardware level, ALOHA-style joint-to-joint mapping, hand motion capture with VR goggles, Tesla's motion capture gloves, and the RT-X dataset are all attempts by academia and industry to collect data more efficiently. Most of these methods require equipping each data collector with an expensive robot, but projects ranging from Tesla's Optimus to Stanford's shrimp-cooking robot have shown us the value of behavior cloning. Behavior cloning allows some particularly impressive tasks with limited generalization needs to be completed using simple algorithms. However, due to the low efficiency of manual action data collection, the generalization demonstrated in all demos is extremely limited—if you replace a banana with an orange and move it half a meter, or change to a table with a different pattern, these robots in the videos would be powerless using the models trained on limited data at the time of release, let alone cross-task generalization. Of course, you can collect multi-task data, such as mixing data for bananas and oranges, and collect demos with many different initial positions, but unless your number of tasks reaches the level of large language models, action models trained on peeling bananas and oranges still cannot solve the problem of peeling mangoes. Many general-purpose humanoid robot companies have also adopted behavior cloning as an entry point because it's easiest to produce good-looking videos—no one can test your model's generalization by changing the scenario in your video to a never-before-seen task. The public also prefers to watch videos of robots doing daily household chores rather than pushing blocks on a laboratory table—even if the video of doing chores requires employing someone to manually operate behind the scenes. My view on this is that the current behavior cloning approach mainly solves the problem of dexterity rather than generalization, but the former is also very important. Many tasks on current production lines meet the applicable conditions of imitation learning and have extremely high commercial value, so practitioners do not necessarily have to deliberately pursue general-purpose robots.

If we do the math, general-purpose robot companies investing large amounts of money to collect data for robot large models using the imitation learning approach could indeed collect part of the data scale needed for instruction fine-tuning using the methods mentioned in the previous paragraph (Llama3's instruction fine-tuning used 10 million manually annotated data, which can be analogized to 10 million different task robot data here), but we shouldn't ignore that the data used for pre-training could be millions of times more than that for instruction fine-tuning.

Therefore, many scholars believe that behavior cloning alone cannot bring about general-purpose robots and focus their research on generalization. When I talk about the lack of data for robots, I'm referring to our lack of data that includes action modalities. However, we can take a step back and obtain actions through large amounts of data from other modalities. For example, although video models like SORA do not directly output information like how many degrees each finger joint rotated, the videos they generate still contain a large amount of information about human actions that can be extracted through human pose estimation. If you enter a new scenario, assuming the video prediction model is good enough, it can generate videos with skills based on images of the new scenario and text descriptions of the task, such as MIT and Google's UniPi. Moreover, when video models are combined with text models, we have a (loosely defined) world model that can, like large language models, use search to generate data for self-improvement and self-learning, rather than just single-step policies. World models can even be combined with model-based reinforcement learning. It is precisely because video data is inexhaustible that even I, as an embodied intelligence scholar, have temporarily set aside hardware and shifted my research direction to exploring videos over the past year, aiming to make video models not only generate visually appealing artistic videos but also perform well in the physical laws and tasks needed for robots.

In addition to video world models, large-scale reinforcement learning is also a possible route to generalization. As a former reinforcement learning researcher, I once despaired for a long time over the two major problems of reinforcement learning—manually designed scenario simulations and manually designed reward functions. If I wanted a robot to learn a task in a room, I would need to manually model the room and input it into the simulator, and design a good reward function to tell the robot how well it did in a particular attempt. Both of these used to require an extremely large amount of manual intervention, making it impossible to scale up to the number of scenarios and tasks needed for generalization. But generative AI has changed all that—we can now easily generate large numbers of 3D objects and are gradually able to generate large numbers of scenes. Although multimodal models are still weak, they can already mark the success or failure of tasks in some cases, or break down large tasks into smaller ones for agents to learn actions, or even annotate more detailed non-sparse reward functions designed down to distances, as in my previous paper. GenSim has already demonstrated the generation of simple robotic tasks, and when 3D scene generation matures and VLMs become cheap enough, we will see truly impressive large-scale reinforcement learning. Imitation learning can also easily be combined with reinforcement learning to enhance its effectiveness.

Beyond this, traditional robotic motion planning is also crucial for solving the data problem for general-purpose robots. Although many dexterous tasks must be learned through human-generated data (joint-to-joint demonstrations or videos), a large portion of the subtasks in these dexterous tasks are indeed spent on very basic reaching, contacting objects, moving objects, and avoiding obstacles. The data for these subtasks can be completely generated through motion planning for pre-training, saving human time. For example, Boston Dynamics' Spot robot dog can very reliably automatically pick up oddly shaped objects placed in different environments without hitting obstacles. Achieving this level of generalization through behavior cloning would require an extremely exaggerated amount of manual data collection. The previous paragraph on large-scale reinforcement learning mentioned the potential of generative AI to generate scenes in the future, and with these scenes, replacing reinforcement learning with motion planning might achieve higher efficiency. I remember when I was applying for my PhD, a professor asked me during an interview how I viewed the application of end-to-end methods in robotics. My answer was that end-to-end would perform well given sufficient data, but we need to spend decades using modular methods to analyze and practice to form a good enough data closed loop first. This approach has been well validated in Tesla's autonomous driving—when data is insufficient, combining planning algorithms and vision networks in a modular way can get the car running first, and after a certain period of time, using the generated data mixed with user data to train end-to-end autonomous driving gave birth to FSD12. I believe motion planning will play an equally important role in the early stages of general-purpose robots.

I can seriously promise everyone that embodied intelligence will definitely be the most exciting technology in the next hundred years, and we have a very good chance of witnessing the birth of general-purpose robots in our lifetime. But it is precisely because I love this field so deeply that I would rather see society invest in the development of general-purpose robots in a steady stream. I'd love to see researchers be result-driven yet not demo-driven; I'd love to see investors maintain long-term confidence in embodied intelligence while not blindly hyping up robot GPT due to hardware companies' financing needs; I'd love to see entrepreneurs tenaciously chase their dream, paving the way for truly general-purpose robots through business successes in specialized areas. And I myself am prepared to dedicate my life, pouring every ounce of effort and passion into the monumental task of bringing truly general-purpose robots into reality for humanity.


Boyuan Chen

Written on my flight to Seattle

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