The Importance of A/B Testing in Robotics

Arnab Bose and Yuheng Kuang, Staff Software Engineers, Robotics at Google

Disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences, and medicine all have to grapple with how to evaluate and compare results within the context of the continually changing real world. In contrast, a significant body of machine learning (ML) research uses a different method that relies on the assumption of a fixed world: measure the performance of a baseline model on fixed data sets, then build a new model aimed at improving on the baseline, and evaluate its performance (on the same fixed data) by comparing its performance to the baseline.

Research into robotics systems and their applications to the real world requires a rethinking of this experiment design. Even in controlled robotic lab environments, it is possible that real-world changes cause the baseline model to perform inconsistently over time, making it unclear whether new models’ performance is an improvement compared to the baseline, or just the result of unintentional, random changes in the experiment setup. As robotics research advances into more complex and challenging real-world scenarios, there is a growing need for both understanding the impact of the ever-changing world on baselines and developing systematic methods to generate informative and clear results.

In this post, we demonstrate how robotics research, even in the relatively controlled environment of a lab, is meaningfully affected by changes in the environment, and discuss how to address this fundamental challenge using random assignment and A/B testing. Although these are classical research methods, they are not generally employed by default in robotics research — yet, they are critical to producing meaningful and measurable scientific results for robotics in real-world scenarios. Additionally, we cover the costs, benefits, and other considerations of using these methods.

The Ever-Changing Real World in Robotics
Even in a robotics lab environment, which is designed to minimize all changes that are not experimental

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