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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
J Cogn Neurosci. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 September 17.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2941160

Combining modalities with different latencies for optimal motor control


Feedback signals may be of different modality, latency and accuracy. To learn and control motor tasks the feedback available may be redundant, and it would not be necessary to rely on every accessible feedback loop. Which feedback loops should then be utilized? In this article, we propose that the latency is a critical factor to determine which signals will be influential at different learning stages. We use a computational framework to study the role of feedback modules with different latencies in optimal motor control. Instead of explicit gating between modules, the reinforcement learning algorithm learns to rely on the more useful module. We tested our paradigm for two different implementations, which confirmed our hypthesis. In the first, we examined how feedback latency affects the competitiveness of two identical modules. In the second, we examined an example of visuomotor sequence learning, where a plastic, faster somatosensory module interacts with a preacquired, slower visual module. We found that the overall performance depended on the latency of the faster module alone, while the relative latency determines the independence of the faster from the slower. In the second implementation, the somatosensory module with shorter latency overtook the slower visual module, and realized better overall performance. The visual module played different roles in early and late learning. First, it worked as a guide for the exploration of the somatosensory module. Then, when learning had converged, it contributed to robustness against system noise and external perturbations. Overall, these results demonstrate that our framework successfully learns to utilize the most useful available feedback for optimal control.

1 Introduction

For motor control and learning, the brain relies on feedback signals of different modalities such as vision and somatosensation, and appears to use them selectively depending on the task demands and the extent of learning. For example, to play the piano, the novice must first rely on visual and somatosensory feedback for finger movement. With practice, she can gradually reduce the reliance of visual feedback, and as expert she does not need to look at the keyboard at all. How does the reliance of feedback change with learning? In this paper, we consider a hypothesis that feedback delay is a major factor in selection of feedback modality, and test if appropriate feedback pathways can be selected through reinforcement learning to achieve the best real-time motor performance.

Recently, the optimal feedback control paradigm (Todorov & Jordan, 2002; Kording & Wolpert, 2006) has successfully predicted human motor behaviour (Todorov & Jordan, 2002; Kording & Wolpert, 2004; Liu & Todorov, 2007). Under this framework, execution is preceded by state estimation, by integration of available feedback modalities and models. Here the current state would have to be inferred from the delayed feedback in a recursive manner. In the context of well-learned, specialized motor skills, which are characterized by fast execution and minimum effort, this may be computationally expensive and time-consuming. In the present study, we propose an alternative, model-free architecture for learning and control of motor skills, where motor commands are computed in parallel by a modular circuit for each modality. Motor commands are mapped directly to the crude, delayed sensory feedback, and then integrated with the outputs of other modalities. This way, the quickest feedback is directly available to the controller for exploitation.

The actor-critic (Barto, 1995) is a reinforcement learning architecture proposed to be implemented by the basal gangliathalamocortical (BG-TC) system (Houk, Adams, & Barto, 1995; Montague, Dayan, & Sejnowski, 1996; Doya, 1999). Our framework is an actor-critic architecture with multiple actors (Nakahara, Doya, & Hikosaka, 2001), where each actor corresponds to a modality or submodality. We propose that the feedback latency constrains the utility of each actor. Further, we propose that the reinforcement learning algorithm plays a critical role in gating between inputs - only the better feedback signals, presumably those with shorter latency, would be reinforced. Thus, modular inputs are, once learned, gated implicitly by their latency. In our framework, the gating is realized by combination of population coded outputs, sharpened by a softmax function in favour of the module with highest confidence. This mechanism is different from explicit gating (Jacobs, Jordan, & Barto, 1991; Haruno, Wolpert, & Kawato, 2001), where explicit signals are computed to weight the influence of modules on the combined output.

The paper is outlined as follows: first, we present the general framework of our model (section 2). Then, we outline two implementations for validation of our model - “Experiment I” and “Experiment II” (section 3), with results of simulations presented in the following section (section 4). In Experiment I, we studied a very simple system to clearly understand the effect of feedback delays. Two modules, which are identical except for their feedback delays, were trained until convergence for a simple arm reaching task. We found that 1) performance was constrained by the latency of the faster module, and 2) that the contribution of a module depended on its latency relative to the other module. The faster module could effectively learn the task, without interference from the slower module. In Experiment II, we studied the interaction between vision and somatosensation in a sequential reaching task. Here, we assumed that a “somatosensory module”, corresponding to a motor skill, is learned under the assistance of a “visual module”, a pre-acquired, general but suboptimal controller guided by visual feedback. We found that for the somatosensory module to become independent of the visual module, it is critical that the latency of the somatosensory module has the shorter latency. During learning, albeit its longer latency, the visual module still functioned as a teacher for the somatosensory module. Once the motor skill was sufficiently acquired by the somatosensory module, it could execute the movement alone, independent from the visual module. At this mature stage of learning, the visual module still contributed by maintaining robustness against unexpected perturbations. Given these results, we propose that our framework, combining reinforcement learning modules by a softmax combination of population codes, realizes flexible learning and robust motor control by utilizing the best available feedback. We discuss its implications in section 5.

2 General framework

As a simple model of learning control using multiple delayed feedback channels, we consider a modular architecture as shown in Figure 1. The state x(t) of the physical environment evolves depending on the motor command u(t). The state is monitored through different sensory channels ym(t) with different delays τm (m = 1, …, M ). Each module outputs a population-coded motor command am(t), and through their combination π(t), the final motor command u(t) is sent out to the physical environment. The goal of control is to maximize the cumulative reward r(t), as in the standard reinforcement learning paradigm (Barto, 1995; Doya, 2000).

Figure 1
The modular network architecture for learning control with multiple feedback pathways (see text).

Below we outline the operation of the feedback control modules, combination of their outputs, and the learning algorithm. The architecture presented here is a modification of an earlier draft (Bissmarck et al., 2005).

2.1 Feedback control modules

Each module m has a characteristic feedback signal


where fm() is an observation function and τm is a characteristic latency for the particular module. Each module gives as output a population code


where g(t) is a function approximator, with a set of trainable parameters wm. Each element ajm (j = 1, 2, ..J) corresponds to a prefered motor output ūj.

2.2 Combination of modular outputs

The motor command u [set membership] RD is represented by a combination of the population coded outputs of all modules with a softmax function:


where β is a constant that regulated the overlap of population codes. The noise term nj(t) makes the policy stochastic, i.e. it controls the exploration of the agent. The actual motor command u(t) is given by the weighted sum of the preferred motor commands ūj corresponding to each population code:


The modular outputs ajm can be interpreted as the log-probability of selecting the output ūj,


Summing over all modules, adding noise and exponentiating gives the full probability P(ūj(t)) = πj (t). This simple but straightforward interpretation gives a direct relationship between the activities of single neurons and distributional population codes (Pouget et al., 2003; Weiss & Fleet, 2002).

2.3 Actor-Critic learning

Our model implements a form of the continuous actor-critic (Doya, 2000). The goal of learning is to maximize the cumulative future rewards:


where τTD determines how far into the future returns should be considered.

The role of the critic is to estimate the cumulative future reward from each state x(t) in the form of state value function:


for each state x(t). The critic learns to estimate the value function from available feedback:


where wc is a set of trainable parameters.

Learning of the critic and the feedback control modules is based on the temporal difference (TD) error


which signals the deviation of reward prediction. See appendix A for the update equations for the critic parameters wc and the controller parameters wm.

3 Visuo-motor reaching tasks

We test the effects of different sensory feedback delays in two simulated experiments of arm reaching. In Experiment I, we used two somatosensory feedback control modules with different delays for a simple reaching task. The aim is to see how the minimal delay affect the control performance and how relative feedback delay affects the selection of the modules by learning. In Experiment II, we used both visual and somatosensory feedback modules for a sequential reaching task. The aim is to see whether and how transition from slow, task independent visual control to fast, task dependent somatosensory control happens under different feedback delays.

Figures 2 and and55 show the implementation of Experiments 1 and 2, respectively.

Figure 2
The implementation of (τ1, τ2) = Experiment I. The agent controls a 2DOF arm by applying joint torques to shoulder and elbow joints, with angles θ1 and θ2 respectively (ξ1 and ξ2 define the Cartesian coordinates). ...
Figure 5
The implementation of Experiment II. Here, with the arm as in Experiment I, the goal is to press targets 1, 2 and 3, presented in consequent order, starting from S. Reward is given only at the time when a key is pressed. The agent consists of two modules ...

3.1 Reaching tasks

We use a 2DOF arm, where each link is 0.3 m long, 0.1 m in diameter, and 1 kg (see Figure 2). The state is defined by its shoulder and elbow joint angles θ1 and θ2 and angular velocities [theta w/ dot above]1 and [theta w/ dot above]2. The Cartesian hand position is ξhand(θ1, θ2). The arm moves according to the motor command u(t) = (u1(t), u2(t)). In Experiment I, we assume the system noise proportional to the motor command so that each joint torque is given by:


where nd(t) is white noise with unit variance and mean zero. In Experiment II, we assumed the system noise to be zero.

In Experiment I, the goal is to move the hand as quickly and accurately as possible to the target position T given the start position S. The reward signal is given by an exponential function of the distance of the hand to the target


where a = 6, b = 20 and c = −0.3. Each trial lasts for 1.0 second.

In Experiment II, the task is to press three targets in consecutive order, which always appear one at the time at the same positions, marked 1, 2 and 3 in Figure 5. A target is pressed when the hand reaches a proximity of the target ||ξhand(t) − ξtarget|| < ξprox at a low speed ||[Xi w/ dot above] hand(t)|| < vprox) (ξprox = 0.02 m and vprox = 0.5 m/s). After each successful target reaching, the agent is rewarded with an increasing amount (50, 100, and 150) and the next target appears immediately. Each trial ends after successful completion of the sequence, or after 5 seconds.

3.2 Feedback control modules

In Experiment I, we use two somatosensory feedback controllers, while in Experiment II, we use somatosensory and visual feedback controllers.

The somatosensory module

The somatosensory control module uses a population code representing joint angles θ and angular velocities [theta w/ dot above] of the arm as the input:


where k = 1, 2, ..K is the index of the input units, [theta w/ macron]kd and [omega with macron]kd are their preferred joint angles and velocities, σ and σ′ are their width parameters, and Z is a normalization term. In Experiment II, we introduced additional units representing the time since the target onset.

The output of module m is given by another population code


where Wm are trainable weight matrices. Initially all weights are zero. See appendix C for more details.

The visual module

The input for the visual feedback controller is the Cartesian positions of the hand and the target


While the target position is subject to feedback delay τv, we assume that an estimate of the present hand position [Xi w/ tilde]hand is available, e.g., by simple linear prediction. The output is expressed as a population code av.

We assume that the feedback control of the visual module (indexed by v) is pre-acquired and use a linear feedback controller with inverse dynamics compensation and output smoothing (see appendix D). The controller produces bell-shaped velocity profile similar to natural hand movement.

3.3 Actor-critic learning

To promote effective exploration, we use a low-pass filtered noise n in the action output (Equation 3)


where the time constant τn = 50 ms and N (t) is Gaussian noise with zero mean and unit variance. The amplitude ν is fixed at 0.1 in Experiment I, and reduced as 1/(1 + 0.0001T) at trial T in Experiment II.

The critic takes the population coded somatosensory feedback as its input and use a linear weighting to produce the value estimate


where y(t) = (y1(t), y2(t)) in Experiment I and y(t) = ys(t) in Experiment II. (We verified that inclusion of visual input yv in Experiment II did not affect the results in this example).

3.4 Performance measures

In order to compare the control performance under different settings of feedback delays, we use a number of performance measures, namely, the hand trajectory, the hand velocity profile, the cumulative reward, and the performance time.

The cumulative reward is given by


where T is the length of a trial (T=1 sec in Experiment I, T=5 sec in Experiment II).

To compare the relative contribution of different modules, we define the actor weight ratio, the output deviation, and the relative output proximity. The actor weight ratio (AWR) we define as the ratio of the absolute sum of actor weights of respective trained module:


i.e. a value AWR > 1 indicates a relatively more influential actor of module 1. We also define the output deviation


which shows how much module m’s output differ from the agent’s at time t. Its time average over trajectories is given by


for a trial terminating at T. From the output deviation, we define the relative output proximity



which is a measure of the relative influence of visual and somatosensory modules over agent output, respectively. Both pv(t) and ps(t) are bounded between 0 and 1 and their relation is pv(t) + ps(t) = 1 by definition. Thus, the value of one module larger than that of the other module indicates that the former is a dominant module.

3.5 Simulation

In both experiments the same learning parameters were used: inverse temperature β = 10, time constants τTD = 200 ms, τET = 200 ms, and learning rate α = 0.1 s−1.

All differential equations were approximated with the Euler forward method with a time step small enough not to affect the results (10 ms).

4 Simulation results

4.1 Experiment I: Simple reaching with somatosensory feedback modules with different delays

In Experiment I (Figure 2), we investigate how feedback latencies affect learning and control in the proposed framework. We use a simple implementation with two modules which are identical, except for their feedback latencies. The task is to learn a simple reaching movement with a 2DOF arm. We train the networks with different pairs of feedback latencies and compare their performance and relative contribution of modules after learning has converged.

Reaching trajectories

Figure 3 shows examples of hand trajectories generated by the architecture with four different settings of feedback latencies. The 10 trajectories in the top row (Figure 3A) are generated with both modules after 100,000 training trials. Effective reaching movement is achieved by all four latency pairs in a robust manner. In the case of (τ1, τ2) = (0, 50), the variability is higher than in the other examples. Since the reward function (see Section 3.1) does not explicitly penalize variability, this is still a performance optimally close to other well-performing agents (see below). However, in the cases of (τ1, τ2) = (0, 0), and (0, 50) ms the movement is much faster than (50, 50), and (50, 100) ms, as can be seen in the hand velocity plots in the bottom row (Figure 3D, solid lines (mean velocity of the samples in Figure 3A)). This shows that the shortest feedback delay is critical for the performance. This is not a trivial finding as the output of the module with the longer feedback delay can interfere with the feedback command generated by the module with shorter delay.

Figure 3
Trajectory samples generated by four different settings of latencies (τ1, τ2) = (0,0), (0,50), (50,50), and (50–100) milliseconds (ms) after 100,000 trials of training. S - start, T - target. (A) 10 trajectory samples generated ...

In order to see the relative contribution of the two modules, we compared the trajectories generated by either one of the modules (Figure 3B–C), with the other module’s output set as am(t) = 0. With the identical delays (τ1, τ2) = (0, 0) and (50, 50) ms, both module can realize comparable trajectories. On the other hand, with different delays (τ1, τ2) = (0, 50) and (50, 100) ms, while the module 1 with shorter delay can realize nice trajectories, the module 2 with longer delays generates very poor trajectories. This shows that the less desired outputs of the module with longer feedback delay is effectively shut down by reinforcement learning.

Effects of minimum and relative delays

To verify the critical role of the minimum feedback delay in control performance and the role of relative feedback delay for module selection, we measured the cumulative reward R and the actor weight ratio of trained agents, for 24 different pairs of feedback delays. Under the condition of τ1τ2, we plot those measures in the parameter space of τmin = τ1 and Δτ = τ2τ1.

Figure 4A shows how the cumulative reward depends on τmin and Δτ. Each black dot corresponds to a trained agent with the specific latency pair. It is clearly seen that the longer τmin results in reduced cumulative reward, while the relative delay Δτ has almost no effect on the performance. Figure 4B shows the actor weight ratio, which increases markedly with the increase of the relative delay Δτ (for τmin = 0, per definition AWR [equivalent] 1. Never was AWR < 1.).

Figure 4
Latency-dependent performance measures, displayed as surface plots constrained by 24 latency pairs (black dots) over latency space (τmin, Δτ). (A) Cumulative reward R, indicating behavioural performance of agent. (B) Actor weigth ...

These results confirm that the performance of the modular learning control architecture is mostly determined by the module with shortest latency. This is achieved by the softmax combination of population coded outputs of modules (2.2) and tuning of modular outputs by actor-critic learning. It is noteworthy that potential problem of slower feedback module contaminating the good output of the faster module has been avoided by this scheme.

4.2 Experiment II: Sequential reaching with visual and somatosensory feedbacks

In Experiment II (Figure 5), we introduce a more realistic, complex implementation of a visuomotor sequence task. In motor skill acquisition, there is substantial evidence for a shift in cortical activity with experience, from prefrontal areas to motor areas (Petersen, Mier, Fiez, & Raichle, 1998; Jueptner, Frith, Brooks, Frackowiak, & Passingham, 1997; Doyon, Owen, Petrides, Sziklas, & Evans, 1996; Hikosaka, Nakamura, Sakai, & Nakahara, 2002a; Floyer-Lea & Matthews, 2005). Analogously, there should be a shift in modalities of feedback subserving these cortical areas; from extrinsic (visual) feedback needed for anticipation and proceduralization of task dynamics to intrinsic (somatosensory) feedback needed for optimization of motor control (Nakahara et al., 2001).

Here, we study the transfer between these two systems, a “visual module” and a “somatosensory module”, in a task of reaching a stereotyped sequence of three targets. The visual module relies on a general purpose controller which regulates a single reach to a given visual target. We assume that the module is preacquired and is not be optimized for any particular target sequence. The somatosensory module relies on somatosensory feedback and become optimized for repeated motor sequences. Architectures with different latency pairs τv and τs were trained for 100,000 trials, after which learning had converged in all cases. We investigate the relative contribution of the somatosensory module for different latency pairs and also compare the robustness against external perturbations of the composite system versus single module control.

Learning performance

Figure 6A–B compare the reaching trajectories before and after learning ((τv, τs) = (100, 0) ms). Before learning, movements are variable and step-by-step - they are directed towards one target at the time. After learning, movements are stereotyped, and also coarticulated, as they are redirected towards targets 2 and 3 before preceding targets are concluded.

Figure 6
Performance before and after learning. (A) 5 sample trajectories before learning. (B) 5 sample trajectories after learning. (C) Performance times of 12 latency pairs before learning (black bars) and after learning (white bars), compared with equal levels ...

Figure 6C compares the performance time (the time it takes to complete one trial) before (black bars) and after (white bars) 100,000 trials of learning for 12 different latency pairs. Clearly, sequence-specific learning by the somatosensory module contributes to reduction of the performance time. Its potential to do so is primarily constrained by τs, which has a decreasing trend of performance time for 100, 50 and 0 ms with any latency τv of the visual module. In turn, τv is also a constraint for performance, as the performance times of learned modules are shorter with lower τv. The overall similar variance of performance time suggests that, within the range of investigated delays, robustness to noise is not affected by delay in our composite system.

Contribution of the somatosensory module

To elucidate the contribution of the somatosensory module, we compared the joint torque outputs of single modules (computed as in Experiment I) with the joint torque output of the agent. Figure 7A–B shows trajectories of generated joint torques over time (one trial), for the two extremes of relative latency in our study, ((τv, τs) = (100, 0) ms (A), Δτ = 100 ms) and ((τv, τs) = (0, 100) ms, Δτ = −100 ms) (B). In the first latency pair, the somatosensory module generates an output different from the visual module, but is evidently dominant as it is close to the agent output. In the second latency pair, the outputs of the two modules are close to each other, indicating that both modules equally contribute to the agent output. Figure 7C shows the quantitative picture, expressed as mean output deviation for 7 latency pairs. In cases of τv < τm, the visual module has the smaller output deviation ((50, 100) and (0, 100)), indicating larger contribution. In the case of mutual, long latency (100, 100), contribution is equal. Otherwise, the somatosensory module has lower output deviation. This result indicates that for the somatosensory module to learn an independent policy, it needs to have a shorter or equal latency τs relative to τv, i.e. τsτv.

Figure 7
A comparison of contribution to joint torque outputs between the visual and somatosensory modules. (A–B) Example trajectories of shoulder (top) and elbow (bottom) torques over time for the latency pairs (τv, τm)=(100, 0) (A) and ...

We then investigated how the learned behaviour is driven by the somatosensory module. We compared the normal behaviour of the learned agent with a condition with the visual module inactive. Figure 8A shows examples of hand trajectories for four latency pairs in the two conditions. With both modules, all agents are always successful. When the visual module is inactive, the ability to control the movement depends on the relative latency Δτ = τvτs. The success rate of the somatosensory module to complete a trial (given 100 trials) is shown in Figure 8B. We observe that the successful rate is high in the case of τs < τv, whereas none (or single trials in the case of (50, 50)) was successful in the case of τsτv. These results further confirm our observation above (Figure 7) that the somatosensory module can become dominant as far as τsτv.

Figure 8
(A) Learned behaviour of the agent in normal execution (“both modules”, top row, solid lines) and in execution with the visual module inactive (“somatosensory module only”, middle row, dashed lines) for four different latency ...

Figure 8C compares the mean performance time of the two conditions. Two of the agents ((50, 0) and (100, 50)) can on average perform almost as well in the somatosensory only condition, but note the smaller variance of the normal condition. The visual module provides robustness also late in learning.

Robustness to perturbation

To further evaluate the robustness of the composite system, we perturbed a behaving agent ((τv, τs) = (100, 0) ms) by applying a force on the end effector (hand). An impulse with constant force (400 N) was applied for 50 ms in a random direction (in the plane of the arm), for 50 ms, 0.3–0.6 s after trial start. Figure 9A–B shows an example trajectory, where the impulse (400 N up left, onset at 0.3 s) throws the agent off track to miss target 2 to the left. The green/blue colours of the trajectory indicate the relative proximity (see section 3.4) in Figure 9A of visual/somatosensory modules’ output to the agent’s, respectively. Note how the visual module predominates after the perturbation, to put back the trained movement on track (towards target 2), after which the somatosensory module regains influence anew. Figure 9C shows a comparison of the impact on performance time (mean of 1000 trials) for the random impulse, when operating with both or single modules active. The visual module functions as a safeguard against perturbations, since the somatosensory module alone (blue bar) cannot effectively recover, resulting in the significantly higher performance time (for which 56 % of the trials were timed out at 5.0 s). The somatosensory module contributes to speedup before and after perturbation recovery, which is why both modules (black bar) are performing faster than the visual only (green bar).

Figure 9
External force perturbation imposed on the end effector (hand), for a trained agent (τv, τs) = (100, 0) ms. (A–B) Example trajectory when an impulse (400 N, 50 ms) perturbs the composite system. (A) Spatial movement trajectory. ...

In summary, these results indicate that in this visuomotor sequence task, as learning progresses, the somatosensory module with the presumably shorter latency becomes dominant in motor control. After learning, the visual module provides stability when the effector ends up outside the well-trained regime. The memory transfer, or the degree of control by different modalities, critically depends on the difference in latencies between the visual and somatosensory modules.

5 Discussion

We have examined how feedback latency affects the relative importance of modules for the learning and control of real-time motor skills. With soft-max combination of population-coded output of multiple control modules, we demonstrated in simulations how the modules with shorter latency attain dominance in motor control. Although the result may sound straightforward, there are potential problems with conflicts of multiple modules, e.g., the longer latency output pulling back movement by the shorter latency module. It is noteworthy that appropriate module selection was achieved without any explicit gating and simply by reinforcement of the output of the module that best contributed to the performance. removed: The last experiment showed that module weighting is highly flexible; the general-purpose visual module takes over the job when the trajectory-specific somatosensory module does not perform well.

The use of population codes strongly contribute to the robustness and stability of our framework. On the level of perception, the robustness towards sensor noise of population coding (Georgopoulos et al. 1988, Pouget et al. 2000) give sensory estimates of high certainty, enhanced by the redundancy of multiple modalities. On the level of action selection, the population codes make the sharper distributions of modular inputs regarded as signal, while the impact of flatter distributions will be suppressed like noise. In experiment II, this explains the robustness of the composite system, demonstrated towards noise and force perturbations. The somatosensory module will predominate the output within its experienced, expert regime, but as soon as noise or mechanical force makes the arm go out of range, the visual module will resume control.

In dealing with delayed or noisy sensory signal, a recently popular paradigm is to use recursive Bayesian filters to estimate the hidden state (Todorov, 2004). Such a model may also explain more weight on the faster module, that is more informative about the current state. However, Bayesian inference requires the models of the physical dynamics and sensory delay and noise and also takes heavy on-line computation, except for linear Gaussian systems where Kalman filtering is possible. Instead, here we pursued much simpler approach of training feedback controllers specialized for given delays. Analysis of pros and cons of these approaches and their possible integration is the subject of our future study. removed: It is also worth mentioning that speed up of the trajectory in experiment II is a natural outcome of delayed reward discounting.

The effects of feedback delays are a relatively less investigated aspect of motor control and learning (Miall & Jackson, 2006). Some tracking experiments have been conducted, all showing worse performance for artificially imposed delays 100 ms and longer (Miall et al., 1985; Foulkes & Miall, 2000; Miall & Jackson, 2006; Ogawa et al., 2007). Kitazawa et al. also showed that learning speed and performance of prism adaptation of a reaching task worsened with delays of visual feedback of the end point error, for humans (Kitazawa et al., 1995) and monkeys (Kitazawa & Yin, 2002).

In experiment II, faster movements were learned even though reward was given only for key presses, regardless of time expenditure. The time discounting of reward used in our actor-critic learning algorithm can naturally explain why performance of numerous skill learning tasks (e.g. Anderson 1983) speed up, although speed is not an explicit performance criterion.

The mechanism of transfer from declarative to procedural memories is poorly understood (Doyon & Benali, 2005; Hikosaka et al., 2002b). In our framework, modules with shorter latency become dominant with learning. As demonstrated in experiment II, this allows specialized motor skills based on fast, intrinsic feedback loops to emerge under general purpose controllers based on slow, extrinsic feedback like vision or audition. If the difference in feedback latency is long enough, the faster modality will eventually become independent of the slower modality, which can then be used for other purposes.

There are two analogies between our framework and the BG-TC system: 1) its organization into modular circuits (Alexander & Crutcher, 1990), and 2) the actor-critic architecture (Houk et al., 1995). In previous experimental (Hikosaka et al., 1999, 2002a) and computational (Nakahara et al., 2001) work, we have proposed that prefrontal and motor BG-TC loops cooperate in motor sequence learning, encoding sequences in visual and motor coordinates, respectively.

The success of this rather simple modular learning control framework motivates future studies with agents comprising of more complex, heterogeneous features, such as different sensor noise levels, learning speeds, or inclusion of feedforward components. For example, given a slow, low-noise module and a fast, noisy module, the former would be used for precision tasks and the latter for speed tasks. To further test the generality of this prediction, delayed auditory feedback could be added as a third modality, and modality dependence could be tested under different pairs of feedback delays.

The brain receives possibly thousands of sensory signals, from which it has to make a sensible response. Biological reinforcement learning may not just be about selecting actions, but also about selecting sensory input. In this context, feedback latencies may be a critical factor for which input and output connections are formed.


FB wishes to thank Mitsuo Kawato, Erhan Oztop and Jun Morimoto for comments on an earlier draft. This research was funded by Core Research for Evolutional Science and Technology (CREST), Japan Science and Technology Agency.


A. Learning algorithm

Our model implements a form of the continuous actor-critic (Doya, 2000). The function of the critic is to estimate the cumulative sum of expected future reward r(t), i.e. to learn the value function. For a given policy, the continuous value function is defined as


for each state x(t). The time constant τTD determines how far into the future returns should be considered. The critic implements a function approximator to estimate the value function from available feedback:


where wc is a set of trainable parameters. The temporal difference (TD) error δTD is the discrepancy between expected and actual return r(t). In its continuous form (Doya, 2000):


The TD error is used to update the parameters in the critic (see below), and converges to zero when Equation 8 equals Equation 6. The TD error is also used to improve the policy [pi](t) of the actor, where circumflex denotes the noise-free, deterministic policy. The action deviation signal


is the difference between the learned action and the action that was actually selected. The TD error reinforces or penalizes this deviation to update the policy [pi]. To control the time scale of states and actions to be updated we use eligibility traces:


for the critic and actor modules respectively. The parameters are indexed by k and τET is a time constant. The trace for the m-th actor is given from


The parameters are updated by gradient descent as


where α denotes the learning rate.

B. Population codes

In both experiments the population codes were equal. In the somatosensory modules, the preferred joint angles [theta w/ macron]kd and angular velocities [omega with macron]kd were distributed uniformly in a 7×7×3×3 grid (K0 = 441 nodes) for k = 1, 2, ..K0 nodes, in the ranges (−0.2:1.2,1,2:1.6) rad and (−1:1, −1:1) rad/s. The corresponding variances σkd and σkd were half the distance to the closest node in each direction.

The preferred joint torques ūj corresponding to action j were distributed symmetrically over the origin in a 5×5 grid, in the range (−100:100, −100:100) Nm with the middle (0,0) unit removed. The corresponding variances σjd were half the distance to the closest node in each direction.

The somatosensory module in experiment II also included “context units”. The context units consists of 3 tapped delay lines, each corresponding to a key in the sequence task. Each delay line had 8 units, i.e. 24 context units in all. For the k-th unit in the n-th delay line (k > K0, kK0 + 8(n − 1) + 1):τCykm(t)+yk1(t)

where τC = 30 ms. Each delay line is initiated by the input at (k = K0 + 8(n − 1) + 1):


where δ is the Dirac delta function, and τnkeypress is the instant the n-th key was pressed.

C. The visual controller in Experiment II

The feedback signal yv to the visual module consists of the hand kinematics ξhand, [Xi w/ dot above]hand and the target position ξtarget. Since the computed torque control law itself does require at least a good estimation of the current motor kinematics, the delayed feedback signals will not produce satisfactory control: the delays will cause oscillations, and become unstable at some 50–100 ms. To overcome this problem, we assumed that the agent has a good model of its own internal dynamics, and can cancel out the delay of ξhand with a prediction [Xi w/ tilde]hand(t) = ξhand(t). The target position ξtarget is assumed not to be predictable. Thus, with the onset of a new target, it takes τv ms before the visual module reacts towards that target. The control is further perturbed by a decoding error, by modification of the somatosensory module and by the stochasticity of action selection.

The joint torques are first computed by


where τCT and λ are constants, e = ξtarget(tτv) − [Xi w/ tilde]hand(t) and the input to the filter is the inverse dynamics equation


in Cartesian coordinates, where J is the Jacobian ([partial differential]θ/[partial differential][Xi w/ tilde]hand), M the moment of inertia matrix and C the Coriolis matrix. Using a filter by Equation 32, more bell-shaped velocity profiles of the hand, similar to biological motion are generated, in contrast to using Equation 33 directly.

The module output is an expansion of the joint torque uvisual on a population vector


where Z is the normalization term, ūjd is a preferable joint torque for Cartesian dimension d for vector element j, σjd the corresponding variance.

The parameters of equations of 32 and 33 were τCT = 50 ms, λ = 100, K1 = [10 0;0 10], K2 = [50 0;0 50].

Contributor Information

Fredrik Bissmarck, ATR International, Kyoto, Japan.

Hiroyuki Nakahara, RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Saitama, Japan.

Kenji Doya, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Okinawa, Japan.

Okihide Hikosaka, National Eye Institute, NIH, Maryland.


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