Skip to content
Branch: master
Find file History
Fetching latest commit…
Cannot retrieve the latest commit at this time.
Type Name Latest commit message Commit time
Failed to load latest commit information.

ANALOG-CARTPOLE - A hybrid analog/digital computing experiment

Use digital Reinforcement Learning to learn to balance an inverse pendulum on a cart simulated on a Model-1 by
Analog Paradigm (

Done in July to September 2019. Analog part by vaxman. Digital part by sy2002.

Watch a short introduction to this experiment on YouTube by clicking the image below or by using this link:

YouTube Link Image

One of the classical "Hello World" examples of Reinforcement Learning is the inverse pendulum. A pole is mounted on a cart. The cart can move in one dimension, for example to the left or to the right. The center of mass is located above the pivot point as shown in the following image:


A force is applied to move the cart to the right and to the left to keep the pendulum upright. Important parameters of this system are: the position of the cart, the velocity of the cart, the angle of the pole and the angular velocity.

For training your reinforcement learning algorithms, OpenAI Gym offers a simulation of a simplified version of this model that delivers exactly these four parameters for your control algorithm and that expects that you keep applying impulses from the left or from the right to keep the pole upright.

In our experiment, we used a Model-1 from Analog Paradigm to create an analog version of OpenAI Gym's simulation. Here is our setup:

Setup of the Experiment

You can see Model-1 on the right side. The algorithm (shown below) is wired on the Model-1 using the black, blue, yellow and red cables. On top of Model-1, there is an oscilloscope that shows the output of some training episodes of the reinforcement learning algorithm. On the left is a Mac, on which a Python script runs the reinforcement learning and which uses Model-1's Hybrid Controller to send commands from the digital computer to the analog computer.

The oscilloscope on the right shows the control actions of the Python script: A bar in the middle means "controls nothing" but "calculates and learns". A bar on top means push cart to the right and a bar on the bottom means push cart to the left.

Analog simulation of the inverse pendulum

Programming an analog computer is quite different from programming a classic stored-program digital computer as there is no algorithm controlling the operation of an analog computer. Instead, an analog computer program is a schematic describing how the various computing elements (such as summers, integrators, multipliers, coeffizient potentiometers etc.) have to be interconnected in order to form an electronic model, an analogue, for the problem being investigated.

At first sight this looks (and feels) quite weird but it turns out that it is not only much more easy to program an analog computer than a digital computer as there is no need to think about numerical algorithms when it comes to tasks like integration etc. Further, an analog computer is much more energy efficient than a digital computer since all of its computing elements work in parallel without any need for slow memory lookups etc. Further, the signals on which an analog computer simulation is based are continuous voltages or currents and not binary signals, so the super-linear increase of power consumption as is typical for digital computers does not hold for analog computers.

History background of analog computers can be found in this great book by Bernd Ulmann.

A modern introduction to the programming of analog and hybrid computers is described in this textbook.

The schematic shown below is the analog computer setup to simulate an inverted pendulum. The mathematic derivation can be found in this paper.

Analog Program

The picture below shows the subprogram controlling the moving cart by means of a hybrid controller which couples the analog computer with a stored-program digital computer by means of an USB-interface. D0 and D1 depict two digital outputs of this controller and control two electronic switches by which the cart can be pushed to the left or to the right.

Controler Schematics

Digital reinforcement learning using the analog computer

System architecture of the experiment represents the digital part of this experiment. It is a Python 3 script that uses the good old serial communication to control the analog computer. For being able to do so, the analog computer Model 1 offers an analog/digital interface called Hybrid Controller.

In our experiment, Model 1's Hybrid Controller is connected to a Mac using a standard USB cable. There is no driver or other additional software necessary to communicate between the Mac and the Hybrid Controller. The reason why this works so smoothly is, that the Hybrid Controller uses an FTDI chip to implement the serial communication over USB. Apple added FTDI support natively from OS X Mavericks (10.9) on as described in Technical Note TN2315. For Windows and Linux, have a look at the installation guides.

The bottom line is, that from the perspective of our Python 3 script, the analog computer can be controlled easily by sending serial commands to the Hybrid Controller using pySerial.

Digital-only mode

If you do not have an Analog Paradigm Model 1 analog computer handy, then you can also run it on any digital computer that supports Python 3 and OpenAI Gym. For doing so, you can toggle the operation mode of by setting the flag SOFTWARE_ONLY to True.

When doing so, we advise you to also set PERFORM_CALIBRATION to True as this yields much better results on OpenAI Gym's simulation and you should set SINGLE_STEP_LEARNING to False as single step learning is just a means of compensating the slowness of the Python script in the "real world realm" of analog computers.

Reinforcement Learning: Q-Learning

We apply Reinforcement Learning to balance the CartPole. For doing so, the following four features are used to feed a Q-learning algorithm: cart position, cart velocity, pole angle and the angular velocity of the pole's tip.

As Q-learning is a model-free algorithm, it actually "does not matter for the algorithm", what the semantics of these four parameters/features mentioned above are. It "does not know" the "meaning" of a feature such as "cart position" or "angular velocity". For the Q-learning algorithm, the set of these features is just what the current State within the Environment is comprised of. And the State enables the Agent to decide, which Action to perform next.

Diagram explaining the basics of RL

Implementation specifics

If you are new to Q-learning, then this simple introduction might be helpful. But in contrast to this simple example, the feature space of cart position, cart velocity, pole angle and angular velocity is pretty large: Normalizing all of them to the interval [0, 1], and each state consisting of these four dimensions will lead to an infinite amount of possible states. Therefore a naive tabular or discrete approach, will be far from optimal.

This is why we decided to choose another way of representing the states: The current state s shall be defined as the distance of the four features (cart position, cart velocity, pole angle, angular velocity) to a big amount of randomly chosen "example states" that we are calling Exemplars inside In other words, the Exemplars are just an amount of n randomly chosen "situations" in which the CartPole could be in, and a "situation" is a random instance of (cart position, cart velocity, pole angle, angular velocity). Therefore a state s is nothing else than the combined "similarity" of s to all of the Exemplars.

The result of this approach is, that s is not represented as a four dimensional vector of (cart position, cart velocity, pole angle, angular velocity). Instead, we are doing a feature transformation from these four features (i.e. 4-dimensional vector) to n Exemplar-distances, yielding an n-dimensional vector.

This transformation gives us enough "resolution" (or in other words a sufficiently large n dimensional space) that allows us, to use Linear Regression to find the Value Function. Obviously, we could not do this with a 4-dimensional linear function, as it would not be able to model the complex behaviour of the CartPole.

The next challenge is, that we are not having all input variables handy to solve the Linear Regression in one step. Instead, Q-learning means stepwise learning. Therefore it is very useful, that scikit-learn's Linear Regression class/algorithm SGDRegressor offers a partial_fit function that performs one epoch of stochastic gradient descent on our given sample at a time. In our code, this is implemented in the function rl_set_Q_s_a, which learns the next iteration of the Value Function for a given action a in the current state s: It calls the partial_fit function of SGDRegressor:

def rl_set_Q_s_a(s, a, val):
    rbf_net[a].partial_fit(rl_transform_s(s), rl_transform_val(val))

Linear functions are not able to model the non-linear behaviour of CartPole. That means if we want to stick to Linear Regression as our means of "storing" Q-learning's results (i.e. finding the Value Function), we need to add the non-linearity in another way: This is why we chose to measure the distance betweeen the current "situation" of (cart position, cart velocity, pole angle, angular velocity) to the Exemplars by using non-linear Gaussian Radial Basis Functions. The shape of Gaussian Radial Basis Functions (RBFs) can be defined using a parameter called epsilon, here are some examples:

Wikipedia Image of RBFs

scikit-learn offers a convenient class called RBFSampler. The epsilon parameter mentioned above is called gamma there. The transform function of RBFSampler can be used to transform (cart position, cart velocity, pole angle, angular velocity) to the n distances to the Exemplars represented by the RBFSampler and the n_components parameter used in RBFSampler's constructor is exactly the amount n we are talking about. In our code, n is called RBF_EXEMPLARS (250 by default).

To be sure we have enough variance and "resolution", we decided to use a whole bunch of RBFSamplers, each of them using a different gamma parameter: The range goes from RBF_GAMMA_MIN (0.05 by default) to RBF_GAMMA_MAX (4.0 by default) and we are instanciating RBF_GAMMA_COUNT (10 by default) RBFSamplers, which are conveniently bundled in a FeatureUnion. The FeatureUnion, which we call rbfs in our code, allows us to call the transform function of all those RBFSamplers within one function call and to collect the output in one 2,500 dimensional vector (250 RBF_EXEMPLARS x 10 RBF_GAMMA_COUNT). The rl_transform function is doing exactly this:

# the RBF network is built like this: create as many RBFSamplers as RBF_GAMMA_COUNT
# and do so by setting the "width" parameter GAMMA of the RBFs as a linear interpolation
models = [RBFSampler(n_components=RBF_EXEMPLARS, gamma=g) for g in gammas]

# we will put all these RBFSamplers into a FeatureUnion, so that our Linear Regression
# can regard them as one single feature space spanning over all "Gammas"
transformer_list = []
for model in models:[[1.0, 1.0, 1.0, 1.0]]) # RBFSampler just needs the dimensionality, not the data itself
    transformer_list.append((str(model), model))
rbfs = FeatureUnion(transformer_list)     #union of all RBF exemplar's output


def rl_transform_s(s):
    if scaler == None:  # during calibration, we do not have a scaler, yet
        return rbfs.transform(np.array(s).reshape(1, -1))
        return rbfs.transform(scaler.transform(np.array(s).reshape(1, -1)))

We are not having one Value Function but two of them: One for each action a, that is possible in our environment. And when it comes to decide, which action to take, our agent is looking for the highest Value Function over all actions for a given state s and to decide which action a to take. There are two actions possible: Push the cart from the left and push the cart from the right. The two Value Functions are represented by the current approximation done by the Linear Regression, this is why the list rbf_net is defined as a list of SGDRegressors and why above-mentioned rl_set_Q_s_a function uses rbf_net[a]:

# List of possible actions that the RL agent can perform in the environment.
# For the algorithm, it doesn't matter if 0 means right and 1 left or vice versa
# or if there are more than two possible actions
env_actions = [0, 1] # needs to be in ascending order with no gaps, e.g. [0, 1]


rbf_net = [SGDRegressor(eta0=ALPHA, power_t=ALPHA_DECAY, learning_rate='invscaling', max_iter=5, tol=float("-inf"))
        for i in range(len(env_actions))]

In the analog world, a "push" is never something discrete. In contrast, to "push something into a direction" is more like applying a force to something for a certain period of time. And this is exactly what we do, when we "push" the cart, i.e. execute action 0 or action 1. The constant HC_IMPULSE_DURATION defines, how many milliseconds the force shall be applied to the cart, when "pushing" it into a certain direction.

The Q-learning itself is implemented pretty straightforwardly. This does not contain an explanaton how Q-learning or Reinforcement Learning works, but is focused on the specific implementation choices we made. So the following list gives only the high-level view on our implementation of the Q-learning algorithm. More details can be found in Richard Sutton's and Andrew Barto's book.

  1. Given the current state s: Decide with the probability of EPSILON, if we want to "exploit" (means "use") the currently learned Value Function to decide which action to take - or - if we'd like to "explore" other options (means choose a random action).
  2. Perform the action a, get the reward r and enter state s2. (The state s2 is the state that we arrive in, when we perform action a in state s.)
  3. Get the next best action a2 given our current state s2 by greedily looking for the highest Value Function over all actions that are possible in s2.
  4. Learn: Modify the Value Function for (s|a) by utilizing the highest possible rewards in the successor state s2 after having performed action a2 and respect the discount factor GAMMA and the learning rate ALPHA.
  5. If not done (i.e. the pole has fallen or the whole experiment runs a predefined amount of steps): Repeat and go to (1).

The following code snipped is abbreviated code from that implements the steps shown above. The function rl_get_Q_s_a that is used there has not been explained, yet: It uses the Linear Regression algorithm SGDRegressor to output (aka "predict") the currently learned version of the Value Function for a given pair (s|a). And env_step is modifying the environment by performing action a; in our case this means: The cart is recieving an impulse either from the left or from the right. Finally, rl_max_Q_s looks for the next best action, given a certain state, and returns that action together with the respective value of the Value Function.

while not done:
    # epsilon-greedy: do a random move with the decayed EPSILON probability
    if p > (1 - eps):
        a = np.random.choice(env_actions)

    # exploit or explore and collect reward
    observation, r, done = env_step(a)            
    s2 = observation

    # Q-Learning
    old_qsa = rl_get_Q_s_a(s, a)
    # if this is not the terminal position (which has no actions), then we can proceed as normal
    if not done:
        # "Q-greedily" grab the gain of the best step forward from here
        a2, max_q_s2a2 = rl_max_Q_s(s2)
        a2 = a
        max_q_s2a2 = 0 # G (future rewards) of terminal position is 0 although the reward r is high

    # learn the new value for the Value Function
    new_value = old_qsa + (r + GAMMA * max_q_s2a2 - old_qsa)
    rl_set_Q_s_a(s, a, new_value)

    # next state = current state, next action is the "Q-greedy" best action
    s = s2
    a = a2        

A last note that is not necessarily relevant for understanding how the algorithm works, but that might still be interessting: Despite its name, the RBFSampler is actually not using any RBFs inside. You can find some experiments and explanations here to learn more about this.


At vero eos et accusam et justo duo dolores et ea rebum. Stet clita kasd gubergren, no sea takimata sanctus est Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consetetur sadipscing elitr, sed diam nonumy eirmod tempor invidunt ut labore et dolore magna aliquyam erat, sed diam.

Episode Mean Steps Median Steps Min. Steps Max. Steps Epsilon
0 82.00 82.00 82 82 0.4545
20 81.75 61.00 34 217 0.4167
40 170.10 138.50 48 420 0.3846
60 351.80 256.50 48 1398 0.3571
80 633.35 477.00 95 2421 0.3333
100 589.35 387.00 39 2945 0.3125
120 4674.80 2825.00 14 19709 0.2941
140 3608.60 1708.00 105 14783 0.2778

Duis autem vel eum iriure dolor in hendrerit in vulputate velit esse molestie consequat, vel illum dolore eu feugiat nulla facilisis at vero eros et accumsan et iusto odio dignissim qui blandit praesent luptatum zzril delenit augue duis dolore te feugait nulla facilisi. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet.

You can’t perform that action at this time.