The dual role of uncertainty in force field learning
Michael Mistry, Evangelos Theodorou, Heiko Hoffmann, Stefan Schaal
Computer Science and Neuroscience, University of Southern California

Force field experiments have been a successful paradigm for studying the principles of planning, execution, and learning in human arm movements. Subjects have been shown to cope with the disturbances generated by force fields by learning internal models of the underlying dynamics to predict disturbance effects or by increasing arm impedance (via co-contraction) if a predictive approach becomes infeasible.

Several studies have addressed the issue uncertainty in force field learning. Scheidt et al. demonstrated that subjects exposed to a viscous force field of fixed structure but varying strength (randomly changing from trial to trial), learn to adapt to the mean disturbance, regardless of the statistical distribution. Takahashi et al. additionally show a decrease in strength of after-effects after learning in the randomly varying environment. Thus they suggest that the nervous system adopts a dual strategy: learning an internal model of the mean of the random environment, while simultaneously increasing arm impedance to minimize the consequence of errors.

In this study, we examine what role variance plays in the learning of uncertain force fields. We use a 7 degree-of-freedom exoskeleton robot as a manipulandum (Sarcos Master Arm, Sarcos, Inc.), and apply a 3D viscous force field of fixed structure and strength randomly selected from trial to trial. Additionally, in separate blocks of trials, we alter the variance of the randomly selected strength multiplier (while keeping a constant mean). In each block, after sufficient learning has occurred, we apply catch trials with no force field and measure the strength of after-effects.

As expected in higher variance cases, results show increasingly smaller levels of after-effects as the variance is increased, thus implying subjects choose the robust strategy of increasing arm impedance to cope with higher levels of uncertainty. Interestingly, however, subjects show an increase in after-effect strength with a small amount of variance as compared to the deterministic (zero variance) case. This result implies that a small amount of variability aides in internal model formation, presumably a consequence of the additional amount of exploration conducted in the workspace of the task.

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