Human-Like Rewards to Train a Reinforcement Learning Controller for Planar Arm Movement

Kathleen M. Jagodnik, Philip S. Thomas, Antonie J. Van Den Bogert, Michael S. Branicky, Robert F. Kirsch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


High-level spinal cord injury (SCI) in humans causes paralysis below the neck. Functional electrical stimulation (FES) technology applies electrical current to nerves and muscles to restore movement, and controllers for upper extremity FES neuroprostheses calculate stimulation patterns to produce desired arm movement. However, currently available FES controllers have yet to restore natural movements. Reinforcement learning (RL) is a reward-driven control technique; it can employ user-generated rewards, and human preferences can be used in training. To test this concept with FES, we conducted simulation experiments using computer-generated 'pseudo-human' rewards. Rewards with varying properties were used with an actor-critic RL controller for a planar two-degree-of-freedom biomechanical human arm model performing reaching movements. Results demonstrate that sparse, delayed pseudo-human rewards permit stable and effective RL controller learning. The frequency of reward is proportional to learning success, and human-scale sparse rewards permit greater learning than exclusively automated rewards. Diversity of training task sets did not affect learning. Long-term stability of trained controllers was observed. Using human-generated rewards to train RL controllers for upper-extremity FES systems may be useful. Our findings represent progress toward achieving human-machine teaming in control of upper-extremity FES systems for more natural arm movements based on human user preferences and RL algorithm learning capabilities.

Original languageEnglish
Article number7478097
Pages (from-to)723-733
Number of pages11
JournalIEEE Transactions on Human-Machine Systems
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Control
  • functional electrical stimulation (FES)
  • human-machine teaming
  • modeling
  • rehabilitation
  • reinforcement learning (RL)
  • simulation
  • upper extremity


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