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Language to rewards for robotic skill synthesis

Empowering end-users to interactively teach robots to perform novel tasks is a crucial capability for their successful integration into real-world applications. For example, a user may want to teach a robot dog to perform a new trick, or teach a manipulator robot how to organize a lunch box based on user preferences. The recent advancements in large language models (LLMs) pre-trained on extensive internet data have shown a promising path towards achieving this goal. Indeed, researchers have explored diverse ways of leveraging LLMs for robotics, from step-by-step planning and goal-oriented dialogue to robot-code-writing agents.

While these methods impart new modes of compositional generalization, they focus on using language to link together new behaviors from an existing library of control primitives that are either manually engineered or learned a priori. Despite having internal knowledge about robot motions, LLMs struggle to directly output low-level robot commands due to the limited availability of relevant training data. As a result, the expression of these methods are bottlenecked by the breadth of the available primitives, the design of which often requires extensive expert knowledge or massive data collection.

In “Language to Rewards for Robotic Skill Synthesis”, we propose an approach to enable users to teach robots novel actions through natural language input. To do so, we leverage reward functions as an interface that bridges the gap between language and low-level robot actions. We posit that reward functions provide an ideal interface for such tasks given their richness in semantics, modularity, and interpretability. They also provide a direct connection to low-level policies through black-box optimization or reinforcement learning (RL). We developed a language-to-reward system that leverages LLMs to translate natural language user instructions into reward-specifying code and then applies MuJoCo MPC to find optimal low-level robot actions that maximize the generated reward function. We demonstrate our language-to-reward system on a variety of robotic control tasks in simulation using a quadruped robot and a dexterous manipulator robot. We further validate our method on a physical robot manipulator.

The language-to-reward system consists of two core components: (1) a Reward Translator, and (2) a Motion Controller. The Reward Translator maps natural language instruction from users to reward functions represented as python code. The Motion Controller optimizes the given reward function using receding horizon optimization to find the optimal low-level robot actions, such as the amount of torque that should be applied to each robot motor.

LLMs cannot directly generate low-level robotic actions due to lack of data in pre-training dataset. We propose to use reward functions to bridge the gap between language and low-level robot actions, and enable novel complex robot motions from natural language instructions.

Reward Translator: Translating user instructions to reward functions

The Reward Translator module was built with the goal of mapping natural language user instructions to reward functions. Reward tuning is highly domain-specific and requires expert knowledge, so it was not surprising to us when we found that LLMs trained on generic language datasets are unable to directly generate a reward function for a specific hardware. To address this, we apply the in-context learning ability of LLMs. Furthermore, we split the Reward Translator into two sub-modules: Motion Descriptor and Reward Coder.

Motion Descriptor

First, we design a Motion Descriptor that interprets input from a user and expands it into a natural language description of the desired robot motion following a predefined template. This Motion Descriptor turns potentially ambiguous or vague user instructions into more specific and descriptive robot motions, making the reward coding task more stable. Moreover, users interact with the system through the motion description field, so this also provides a more interpretable interface for users compared to directly showing the reward function.

To create the Motion Descriptor, we use an LLM to translate the user input into a detailed description of the desired robot motion. We design prompts that guide the LLMs to output the motion description with the right amount of details and format. By translating a vague user instruction into a more detailed description, we are able to more reliably generate the reward function with our system. This idea can also be potentially applied more generally beyond robotics tasks, and is relevant to Inner-Monologue and chain-of-thought prompting.

Reward Coder

In the second stage, we use the same LLM from Motion Descriptor for Reward Coder, which translates generated motion description into the reward function. Reward functions are represented using python code to benefit from the LLMs’ knowledge of reward, coding, and code structure.

Ideally, we would like to use an LLM to directly generate a reward function R (s, t) that maps the robot state s and time t into a scalar reward value. However, generating the correct reward function from scratch is still a challenging problem for LLMs and correcting the errors requires the user to understand the generated code to provide the right feedback. As such, we pre-define a set of reward terms that are commonly used for the robot of interest and allow LLMs to composite different reward terms to formulate the final reward function. To achieve this, we design a prompt that specifies the reward terms and guide the LLM to generate the correct reward function for the task.

The internal structure of the Reward Translator, which is tasked to map user inputs to reward functions.

Motion Controller: Translating reward functions to robot actions

The Motion Controller takes the reward function generated by the Reward Translator and synthesizes a controller that maps robot observation to low-level robot actions. To do this, we formulate the controller synthesis problem as a Markov decision process (MDP), which can be solved using different strategies, including RL, offline trajectory optimization, or model predictive control (MPC). Specifically, we use an open-source implementation based on the MuJoCo MPC (MJPC).

MJPC has demonstrated the interactive creation of diverse behaviors, such as legged locomotion, grasping, and finger-gaiting, while supporting multiple planning algorithms, such as iterative linear–quadratic–Gaussian (iLQG) and predictive sampling. More importantly, the frequent re-planning in MJPC empowers its robustness to uncertainties in the system and enables an interactive motion synthesis and correction system when combined with LLMs.


Robot dog

In the first example, we apply the language-to-reward system to a simulated quadruped robot and teach it to perform various skills. For each skill, the user will provide a concise instruction to the system, which will then synthesize the robot motion by using reward functions as an intermediate interface.

Dexterous manipulator

We then apply the language-to-reward system to a dexterous manipulator robot to perform a variety of manipulation tasks. The dexterous manipulator has 27 degrees of freedom, which is very challenging to control. Many of these tasks require manipulation skills beyond grasping, making it difficult for pre-designed primitives to work. We also include an example where the user can interactively instruct the robot to place an apple inside a drawer.

Validation on real robots

We also validate the language-to-reward method using a real-world manipulation robot to perform tasks such as picking up objects and opening a drawer. To perform the optimization in Motion Controller, we use AprilTag, a fiducial marker system, and F-VLM, an open-vocabulary object detection tool, to identify the position of the table and objects being manipulated.


In this work, we describe a new paradigm for interfacing an LLM with a robot through reward functions, powered by a low-level model predictive control tool, MuJoCo MPC. Using reward functions as the interface enables LLMs to work in a semantic-rich space that plays to the strengths of LLMs, while ensuring the expressiveness of the resulting controller. To further improve the performance of the system, we propose to use a structured motion description template to better extract internal knowledge about robot motions from LLMs. We demonstrate our proposed system on two simulated robot platforms and one real robot for both locomotion and manipulation tasks.


We would like to thank our co-authors Nimrod Gileadi, Chuyuan Fu, Sean Kirmani, Kuang-Huei Lee, Montse Gonzalez Arenas, Hao-Tien Lewis Chiang, Tom Erez, Leonard Hasenclever, Brian Ichter, Ted Xiao, Peng Xu, Andy Zeng, Tingnan Zhang, Nicolas Heess, Dorsa Sadigh, Jie Tan, and Yuval Tassa for their help and support in various aspects of the project. We would also like to acknowledge Ken Caluwaerts, Kristian Hartikainen, Steven Bohez, Carolina Parada, Marc Toussaint, and the greater teams at Google DeepMind for their feedback and contributions.

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