Evaluating the Dynamics of Agent-Environment Interaction

Dani Goldberg

Improving the performance of agent-based systems is a challenging problem requiring both system evaluation and appropriate modification of the agent's policy or controller. This dissertation presents work in this problem domain, focusing on the development of an on-line, real-time method for modeling the interaction dynamics between a situated agent and its environment. The encompassing theme is to provide pragmatic, general-purpose, and theoretically-sound approaches for improving the performance of agent-based systems.

In order to provide context to the approach and contributions of the dissertation, we first consider some of the many complicating factors that influence a solution to the problem of improving performance. Next, motivation for our on-line modeling approach is provided by a brief examination of off-line evaluation using interference (or collisions) between agents (robots). This work in off-line evaluation presents the unifying experimental theme of the dissertation (mobile robot foraging) and shows how behavior-based control provides a rich substrate for the evaluation of interaction dynamics.

The majority of the dissertation focuses on on-line learning of augmented Markov models (AMMs), a novel version of semi-Markov processes. The approach utilizes AMMs to capture agent-environment interaction dynamics in terms of the history of behaviors executed while performing a task. These models provide the data that are used on-line and in real-time to evaluate the system and suggest task-dependent, performance-improving modifications to the agent's behavior. An AMM construction algorithm is presented that allows incremental generation with little computational overhead, making it feasible for on-line, real-time applications. The algorithm is able to represent non-first-order Markovian systems in first-order form by dynamically adjusting models through the use of higher-order statistics. This ability to represent higher-order Markovian characteristics provides the expressiveness to accommodate systems with rich interaction dynamics.

The on-line, real-time modeling approach using AMMs in conjunction with behavior-based control is demonstrated as effective in both stationary and non-stationary problem domains. Several challenging robotics applications are examined in the stationary domain (fault detection, affiliation determination, hierarchy restructuring) and the non-stationary domain (regime detection, reward maximization). The AMM-based evaluations used in these applications include statistical hypothesis tests and expectation calculations from Markov chain theory. Experimental results are presented for each of the methods and applications discussed. Finally, some of the statistical distribution issues involving AMMs and their utilization in this work are addressed through an empirical comparison with a non-parametric alternative.

The methods and experimentation presented in this thesis aim to show that the evaluation of agent-environment interaction dynamics can be effective and efficient in improving the performance of agents in challenging problem domains.