"Big Data and Artificial Intelligence: Intelligence Matters" entries

Artificial intelligence: summoning the demon

We need to understand our own intelligence is competition for our artificial, not-quite intelligences.


A few days ago, Elon Musk likened artificial intelligence (AI) to “summoning the demon.” As I’m sure you know, there are many stories in which someone summons a demon. As Musk said, they rarely turn out well.

There’s no question that Musk is an astute student of technology. But his reaction is misplaced. There are certainly reasons for concern, but they’re not Musk’s.

The problem with AI right now is that its achievements are greatly over-hyped. That’s not to say those achievements aren’t real, but they don’t mean what people think they mean. Researchers in deep learning are happy if they can recognize human faces with 80% accuracy. (I’m skeptical about claims that deep learning systems can reach 97.5% accuracy; I suspect that the problem has been constrained some way that makes it much easier. For example, asking “is there a face in this picture?” or “where is the face in this picture?” is much different from asking “what is in this picture?”) That’s a hard problem, a really hard problem. But humans recognize faces with nearly 100% accuracy. For a deep learning system, that’s an almost inconceivable goal. And 100% accuracy is orders of magnitude harder than 80% accuracy, or even 97.5%. Read more…

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Big data’s big ideas

From cognitive augmentation to artificial intelligence, here's a look at the major forces shaping the data world.

Big data’s big ideas

Looking back at the evolution of our Strata events, and the data space in general, we marvel at the impressive data applications and tools now being employed by companies in many industries. Data is having an impact on business models and profitability. It’s hard to find a non-trivial application that doesn’t use data in a significant manner. Companies who use data and analytics to drive decision-making continue to outperform their peers.

Up until recently, access to big data tools and techniques required significant expertise. But tools have improved and communities have formed to share best practices. We’re particularly excited about solutions that target new data sets and data types. In an era when the requisite data skill sets cut across traditional disciplines, companies have also started to emphasize the importance of processes, culture, and people. Read more…

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Challenges facing predictive APIs

Solutions to a number of problems must be found to unlock PAPI value.

Key_in_Lock_nikolajnewyork_FlickrIn November, the first International Conference on Predictive APIs and Apps will take place in Barcelona, just ahead of Strata Barcelona. This event will bring together those who are building intelligent web services (sometimes called Machine Learning as a Service) with those who would like to use these services to build predictive apps, which, as defined by Forrester, deliver “the right functionality and content at the right time, for the right person, by continuously learning about them and predicting what they’ll need.”

This is a very exciting area. Machine learning of various sorts is revolutionizing many areas of business, and predictive services like the ones at the center of predictive APIs (PAPIs) have the potential to bring these capabilities to an even wider range of applications. I co-founded one of the first companies in this space (acquired by Salesforce in 2012), and I remain optimistic about the future of these efforts. But the field as a whole faces a number of challenges, for which the answers are neither easy nor obvious, that must be addressed before this value can be unlocked.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll enumerate what I see as the most pressing issues. I hope that the speakers and attendees at PAPIs will keep these in mind as they map out the road ahead. Read more…

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Small brains, big data

How neuroscience is benefiting from distributed computing — and how computing might learn from neuroscience.


When we think about big data, we usually think about the web: the billions of users of social media, the sensors on millions of mobile phones, the thousands of contributions to Wikipedia, and so forth. Due to recent innovations, web-scale data can now also come from a camera pointed at a small, but extremely complex object: the brain. New progress in distributed computing is changing how neuroscientists work with the resulting data — and may, in the process, change how we think about computation. Read more…

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In search of a model for modeling intelligence

True artificial intelligence will require rich models that incorporate real-world phenomena.


An orrery, a runnable model of the solar system that allows us to make predictions. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: this post is part of our Intelligence Matters investigation.

In my last post, we saw that AI means a lot of things to a lot of people. These dueling definitions each have a deep history — ok fine, baggage — that has massed and layered over time. While they’re all legitimate, they share a common weakness: each one can apply perfectly well to a system that is not particularly intelligent. As just one example, the chatbot that was recently touted as having passed the Turing test is certainly an interlocutor (of sorts), but it was widely criticized as not containing any significant intelligence.

Let’s ask a different question instead: What criteria must any system meet in order to achieve intelligence — whether an animal, a smart robot, a big-data cruncher, or something else entirely? Read more…

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How to build and run your first deep learning network

Step-by-step instruction on training your own neural network.


When I first became interested in using deep learning for computer vision I found it hard to get started. There were only a couple of open source projects available, they had little documentation, were very experimental, and relied on a lot of tricky-to-install dependencies. A lot of new projects have appeared since, but they’re still aimed at vision researchers, so you’ll still hit a lot of the same obstacles if you’re approaching them from outside the field.

In this article — and the accompanying webcast — I’m going to show you how to run a pre-built network, and then take you through the steps of training your own. I’ve listed the steps I followed to set up everything toward the end of the article, but because the process is so involved, I recommend you download a Vagrant virtual machine that I’ve pre-loaded with everything you need. This VM lets us skip over all the installation headaches and focus on building and running the neural networks. Read more…

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What is deep learning, and why should you care?

Announcing a new series delving into deep learning and the inner workings of neural networks.


Editor’s note: this post is part of our Intelligence Matters investigation.

When I first ran across the results in the Kaggle image-recognition competitions, I didn’t believe them. I’ve spent years working with machine vision, and the reported accuracy on tricky tasks like distinguishing dogs from cats was beyond anything I’d seen, or imagined I’d see anytime soon. To understand more, I reached out to one of the competitors, Daniel Nouri, and he demonstrated how he used the Decaf open-source project to do so well. Even better, he showed me how he was quickly able to apply it to a whole bunch of other image-recognition problems we had at Jetpac, and produce much better results than my conventional methods.

I’ve never encountered such a big improvement from a technique that was largely unheard of just a couple of years before, so I became obsessed with understanding more. To be able to use it commercially across hundreds of millions of photos, I built my own specialized library to efficiently run prediction on clusters of low-end machines and embedded devices, and I also spent months learning the dark arts of training neural networks. Now I’m keen to share some of what I’ve found, so if you’re curious about what on earth deep learning is, and how it might help you, I’ll be covering the basics in a series of blog posts here on Radar, and in a short upcoming ebook. Read more…

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AI’s dueling definitions

Why my understanding of AI is different from yours.


SoftBank’s Pepper, a humanoid robot that takes its surroundings into consideration.

Editor’s note: this post is part of our Intelligence Matters investigation.

Let me start with a secret: I feel self-conscious when I use the terms “AI” and “artificial intelligence.” Sometimes, I’m downright embarrassed by them.

Before I get into why, though, answer this question: what pops into your head when you hear the phrase artificial intelligence?

For the layperson, AI might still conjure HAL’s unblinking red eye, and all the misfortune that ensued when he became so tragically confused. Others jump to the replicants of Blade Runner or more recent movie robots. Those who have been around the field for some time, though, might instead remember the “old days” of AI — whether with nostalgia or a shudder — when intelligence was thought to primarily involve logical reasoning, and truly intelligent machines seemed just a summer’s work away. And for those steeped in today’s big-data-obsessed tech industry, “AI” can seem like nothing more than a high-falutin’ synonym for the machine-learning and predictive-analytics algorithms that are already hard at work optimizing and personalizing the ads we see and the offers we get — it’s the term that gets trotted out when we want to put a high sheen on things. Read more…

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Streamlining feature engineering

Researchers and startups are building tools that enable feature discovery.

Why do data scientists spend so much time on data wrangling and data preparation? In many cases it’s because they want access to the best variables with which to build their models. These variables are known as features in machine-learning parlance. For many0 data applications, feature engineering and feature selection are just as (if not more important) than choice of algorithm:

Good features allow a simple model to beat a complex model.
(to paraphrase Alon Halevy, Peter Norvig, and Fernando Pereira)

The terminology can be a bit confusing, but to put things in context one can simplify the data science pipeline to highlight the importance of features:

Feature engineering and discovery pipeline

Feature Engineering or the Creation of New Features
A simple example to keep in mind is text mining. One starts with raw text (documents) and extracted features could be individual words or phrases. In this setting, a feature could indicate the frequency of a specific word or phrase. Features1 are then used to classify and cluster documents, or extract topics associated with the raw text. The process usually involves the creation2 of new features (feature engineering) and identifying the most essential ones (feature selection).

Read more…


Untapped opportunities in AI

Some of AI's viable approaches lie outside the organizational boundaries of Google and other large Internet companies.

Editor’s note: this post is part of an ongoing series exploring developments in artificial intelligence.

Here’s a simple recipe for solving crazy-hard problems with machine intelligence. First, collect huge amounts of training data — probably more than anyone thought sensible or even possible a decade ago. Second, massage and preprocess that data so the key relationships it contains are easily accessible (the jargon here is “feature engineering”). Finally, feed the result into ludicrously high-performance, parallelized implementations of pretty standard machine-learning methods like logistic regression, deep neural networks, and k-means clustering (don’t worry if those names don’t mean anything to you — the point is that they’re widely available in high-quality open source packages).

Google pioneered this formula, applying it to ad placement, machine translation, spam filtering, YouTube recommendations, and even the self-driving car — creating billions of dollars of value in the process. The surprising thing is that Google isn’t made of magic. Instead, mirroring Bruce Scheneier’s surprised conclusion about the NSA in the wake of the Snowden revelations, “its tools are no different from what we have in our world; it’s just better funded.” Read more…