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Interview – The Importance of Machine Learning for the Data Driven Business

To become more data-driven, organizations must mature their analytics and automate more of their decision making processes for innovation and differentiation. Data science seems like the right approach, yet is a new and fast moving field that seems to have as many dead ends as it has high ways to value. Cloudera Fast Forward Labs, led by Hilary Mason, shows companies the way.

Alice Albrecht is a research engineer at Cloudera Fast Forward Labs.  She spends her days researching the latest and greatest in machine learning and artificial intelligence and bringing that knowledge to working prototypes and delivering concrete advice for clients.  Prior to joining Fast Forward Labs, Alice worked in both finance and technology companies as a practicing data scientist, data science leader, and – most recently – a data product manager.  In addition to teaching machines to do cool things, Alice is passionate about mentoring and helping others grow in their careers.  Alice holds a PhD from Yale in cognitive neuroscience where she studied how humans summarize sensory information from the world around them and the neural substrates that underlie those summaries.

Read this article in German:
“Interview – Die Bedeutung von Machine Learning für das Data Driven Business“

Data Science Blog: Ms. Albrecht, you are a well-known keynote speaker for data science and artificial intelligence. While data science has arrived business already, deep learning seems to be the new trend. Is artificial intelligence for business already normal business or is it an overrated hype?

I’d say it isn’t either of those two options.  Data science is now widely adopted but companies still struggle to integrate this new discipline into their existing businesses.  As for deep learning, it really depends on the company that’s looking into using this technique.  I wouldn’t say that deep learning is by any means part of business as usual- nor should it be.  It’s a tool like any other and building a capacity for using a tool without clearly defined business needs is a recipe for disaster.

Data Science Blog: Just to make sure what we are talking about: What are the differences and overlaps between data analytics, data science, machine learning, deep learning and artificial intelligence?

Here at Cloudera Fast Forward Labs, we like to think of data analytics as collecting data and counting things (mostly for quick charts and reports).  Data science solves business problems by counting cleverly and predicting things with the data that’s collected.  Machine learning is about solving problems with new kinds of feedback loops that improve with more data.  Deep learning is a particular type of machine learning and is not itself a separate concept or type of tool.  Artificial intelligence taps into something more complicated than what we’re seeing today – it’s much broader than training machines to repetitively do very specialized tasks or solve very narrow problems.

Data Science Blog: And how can we add the context to big data?

From a theoretical perspective, data science has been around for decades. The building blocks for modern day machine learning, deep learning and artificial intelligence are based on mathematical theorems  that go back to the 1940’s and 1950’s. The challenge was that at the time, compute power and data storage capacity were simply too expensive for the approaches to be implemented. Today that’s all changed.. Not only has the cost of data storage dropped considerably, open source technology like Apache Hadoop has made it possible to store any volume of data at costs approaching zero. Compute power, even highly specialised chip architectures, are now also available on demand and only for the time organisations need them through public and private cloud solutions. The decreased cost of both data storage and compute power, together with a growing list of tools and resources readily available via the open source community allows companies of any size to benefit from data (no matter that size of that data).

Data Science Blog: What are the challenges for organizations in getting started with data science?

I see two big challenges when getting started with data science.  One is ensuring that you have organizational alignment around exactly what type of work data scientists will deliver (and timing for those projects).  The second hurdle is around ensuring that you have the right data in place before you start hiring data scientists. This can be tricky if you don’t have in-house expertise in this area, so sometimes it’s better to hire a data engineer or a data strategist (or director of data science) before you ever get started building out a data science team.

Data Science Blog: There are many discussions about how to build a data-driven business. Is it just about using data science to get a better understanding of customer behavior?

No, being data driven doesn’t just mean better understanding your customers (though that is one way that data science can help in an organization).  Aside from building an organization that relies on data and analytics to help them make decisions (about customer behavior or otherwise), being a data-driven business means that data is powering your core products.

Data Science Blog: The number of technologies, tools and frameworks is increasing. For organizations this also means increasing complexity. Do companies need to stay always up-to-date or could it be an advice to wait and imitate pioneers later?

While it’s not critical (or advisable) for organizations to adopt every new advancement that comes along, it is critical for them to stay abreast of emerging frameworks.  If a business waits to see what others are doing, and therefore don’t invest in understanding how new advancements can affect their particular business, they’ve likely already missed the boat.

Data Science Blog: Global players have big budgets just for doing research and setting up data labs. Middle-sized companies need to see the break even point soon. How can we accelerate the value generation of data science?

Having a team that is highly focused on a specific set of projects that are well-scoped and aligned to the business makes all the difference.  Data science and machine learning don’t have to sacrifice doing research and being innovative in order to produce value.  The biggest difference is that smaller teams will have to be more aware of how their choice of project fits into emerging frameworks and their particular acute and near term business needs.

Data Science Blog: How does Cloudera Fast Forward Labs help other organizations to accelerate their start with machine learning?

We advise organizations, based on their particular needs, on what the latest advancements are in machine learning and data science, how to build and structure their data teams to develop the capabilities they need to meet their goals, and how to quickly implement custom forward-looking solutions using their own data and in-house expertise.

Data Science Blog: Finally, a question for our younger readers who are looking for a career as a data expert: What makes a good data scientist? Do you like to work with introverted coding nerds or the data loving business experts?

A good data scientists should be deeply curious and have a love for the ways in which data can lead to new discoveries and power the next generation of products.  We expect the people who thrive in this field to come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Deep Learning and Human Intelligence – Part 1 of 2

Many people are under the impression that the new wave of data science, machine learning and/or digitalization is new, that it did not exist before. But its history is as long as the history of humanity and/or science itself.  The scientific discovery could hardly take place without the necessary data. Even the process of discovering the numbers included elements of machine learning: pattern recognition, comparison between different groups (ranking), clustering, etc. So what differentiates mathematical formulas from machine learning and how does it relate to artificial intelligence?

There is no difference between the two if seen from the perspective of formulas however, such a perspective limits the type of data to which they can be applied. Data stored via tables consist of structured data and are stored in so-called relational databases. The reason for such a data storage is the connection between different fields that assume a well-established structure in advance, such as a company’s sales or balance sheet. However, with the emergence of personal computers, many of the daily activities have been digitalized: music, pictures, movies, and so on. All this information is stored unrelated to other data and therefore called unstructured data.

IEEE International Conference on Computer Vision (ICCV), 2015, DOI: 10.1109/ICCV.2015.428

Copyright: IEEE International Conference on Computer Vision (ICCV), 2015, DOI: 10.1109/ICCV.2015.428

The essence of scientific discoveries was and will be structure. Not surprisingly, the mathematical formulas revolve around relations between variables – information, in general. For example, Galileo derived the law of falling balls from measuring the successive hight of a falling ball. The main difficulty was to obtain measurements at regular time intervals. What about if the data is not structured, which mathematical formula should be applied then? There is a distribution of people’s height, but no distribution for the pictures taken in all holidays for the last year, there is an amplitude for acoustic signals, but no function that detects the similarity between two songs. This is one of the reasons why machine learning focuses heavily on clustering and classification.

Roughly speaking, these simple examples are enough to categorize the difference between scientific discovery and machine learning. Science is about discovering relationships between different variables, Machine Learning tries to automatize processes. Every technical improvement is part of the automation, so why is everything different in this case? Because the current automation deals with human intelligence. The car automates the walking, the kitchen stove the fire, but Machine Learning parts of the human intelligence. There is a difference between the previous automation steps and those of human intelligence. All the previous ones are either outside the human body – such as Fire – or unconsciously executed (once learned) – walking, spinning, etc. The automation induced by Machine Learning affects a part of the human intelligence that we consciously perceive. Of course, today’s machine learning tools are unable to automate all human intelligence, but it is a fascinating step in that direction.

A breakthrough in Machine Learning tasks was achieved in 2012 when the first Deep Learning algorithm for detecting types of images, reached near-human accuracy. It could appreciate the likelihood that the image is a human face, a train, a ball or a fish without having “seen” the picture before. Such an algorithm can be used in various areas:  personally – facial recognition in pictures and/or social media – as tagging of images or videos, medicine – cancer detection, etc. For understanding such cutting-edge issues of classification, one cannot avoid understanding how Deep Learning works. To see the beauty of such algorithms and, at the same time, to be able to comprehend the difficulty of working with them, an example will be the best guide.

The building blocks of Deep Learning are neurons, operational units, which perform mathematical operations or logical operations like AND, OR, etc., and are modelled after the neurons in the brain. Already in the 1950’s two neuroscientist, Hubel and Wiesel, observed that not all neurons in the brain are responding in the same fashion to visual stimuli. Some responded only to horizontal lines, whereas others to vertical lines, with other words, the brain is constructed with specialized neurons. Groups of such neurons are called, in the Machine Learning community, layers. Like in the brain, neurons with different properties are clustered in different layers. This implies that layers have also specific properties and have to be arranged in a specific way, called architecture. It is this architecture which differentiates Deep Learning from Artificial Neuronal Networks (ANN are similar to a layer).

Unfortunately, scientists still haven’t figured out how the brain works, thus to discover how to train Deep Learning from data was not an easy task, and is also the reason why another example is used to explain the training of Deep Learning: the eye. One has always to remember: once it is known how Deep Learning works, it is simple to find example which illustrates the working mechanism.  For such an analogy, it is sufficient for someone without any knowledge about Deep Learning, to keep in mind only the elements that compose such architectures: input data, different layers of neurons, output layers, ReLu’s.

Input data are any type of information, in our example it is light. Of course, that Deep Learning is not limited only to images or videos, but also to sound and/or time series, which would imply that the example would be the ear and sound waves, or the brain and numbers.

Layers can be seen as cells in the eye. It is well known that the eye is formed of different layers connected to each other with each of them having different properties, functionalities. The same is true also for the layers of a Deep Learning architecture: one can see the neurons as cells of the layer as the tissue. While, mathematically, the neurons are nothing more than simple operations, usually linear weight functions, they can be seen as the properties of individual cells. Each layer has one weight matrix, which gives the neuron (and layer) specific properties depending on the data and the task at hand.

It is here that the architecture becomes very important. What Deep Learning offers is a default setting of the layers with unknown weights. One can see this as trying to build an eye knowing that there are different types of cells and different ways how tissues of such cells can be arranged, but not which cell exactly is needed (with what properties) and which arrangement of layers works best. Such an approach has the advantage that one is capable of building any type of organ desired, but the disadvantage is also very obvious: it is time consuming to find the appropriate cell properties and layers arrangements.

Still, the strategy of Deep Learning is a significant departure from the Machine Learning approaches. The performance of Machine Learning methods is as good as the features engineering performed by Data Scientists, and thus depending on the creativity of the Data Scientist. In the case of Deep Learning the engineers of the features is performed automatically as part of the model building. This is a huge improvement, as the only difficult task is to have enough data and computer power to find the right weights matrices. Such an endeavor was performed also by nature for the eye — and is also the reason why one can choose it as an example for Deep Learning — evolution. It is not surprising that Deep Learning is one of the best direction scientists have of Artificial Intelligence today.

The evolution of the eye can be seen, from the perspective of Data Scientists, as the continuous training of a Deep Learning architecture which enables to recognize and track one or more objects. The performance of the evolutional process can be summed up as the fine tuning of the cells which are getting more and more susceptible to light and the adaptation of layers to enable a better vision. Different animals in different environments and different targets — as the hawk and the fly — developed different eyes than humans, but they all work according to the same principle. The tasks that Deep Learning is performing today are similar, for example it can be used to drive cars but there is still a difference:  there is no connection to other organs. Deep Learning is not the approximation of an Artificial Organism, like an android, but a simplified Artificial Organ that can work on its own.

Returning to the working mechanism of the Deep Learning architecture, we can already follow the analogy of what happens if a ray of light is hitting the eye. Once the eye is fully adapted to the task, one can followed how the information enters the Deep Learning architecture (Artificial Eye) by penetrating the input layer. already here arises the question, what kind of eye is the best? One where a small source of light can reach as many neurons as possible, or the one where the light sources reaches only few neurons? In order to take such a decision, a last piece of the puzzle is required: ReLu. One can see them as synapses between neurons (cells) and/or similarly for tissue. By using continuous functions, such as the shape of the latter ‘S’ (called sigmoid), the information from one neuron will be distributed over a large number of other neurons. If one uses the maximum function, then only few neurons are updated with processed information from earlier layers.

Such sparse structures between neurons, was a major improvement in the development of the technique of training Deep Learning architectures. Again, it has a strong evolutionary analogy: energy efficiency. By needing less neurons, the tissues and architecture are both kept to a minimal size which enables flexibility in development and less energy. As the information is process by the different layers, the Artificial Eye is gathering more and more complex (non-linear) structures — the adapted features –, which help to decide, from past experience, what kind of object is detected.

This was part 1 of 2 of the article series. Continue with Part 2.

Ways AI & ML Are Changing How We Live

From Amazon’s Alexa, a personal assistant that can do anything from making your to-do list to giving a wide range of real-time information about the world around you, to Google’s DeepMind that has very recently made headlines for possibly being able to predict the future, AI and ML are the biggest development in human history.

Machine Learning Used by Hospitals

We hear a lot about Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the realm of insurance Big Data, but there isn’t much buzz around how AI and ML are revolutionising hospitals. The national health expenditures were around $3.4 trillion and estimated to increase from 17.8 percent of GDP to 19.9 percent between 2015 and 2025. By 2021, industry analysts have predicted that the AI health market will reach $6.6 billion. By 2026, such increases in AI technology in the healthcare sector will save the economy around $150 billion annually.

Some of the most popular Artificial Intelligence applications used in hospitals now are:

  • Predictive Health Trackers – Technology that has the ability to monitor patients’ health status using real-time data collection. One such technology is the Health and Environmental Tracker (HET) which can predict if someone is about to have an asthma attack.
  • Chatbots – It isn’t only retail customer service that uses chatbots to deal with consumers. Now hospitals have automated physicians that inquire and route clinicians to the right specialists.
  • Predictive AnalyticsCleveland Clinics have partnered with Microsoft (Cortana) while John Hopkins has partnered up with GE in order to create Machine Learning technology that has the ability to monitor patients and prevent patient emergencies before they happen. It does this by analysing data for primary indicators of potential risks.

Cognitive Marketing – Content Marketing on Steroids

Customer experience and content marketing are terms often tossed around in the world of business and advertising these days. Why do we bring them up now, you ask? Well, things are about to be kicked into sixth gear, thanks to Cognitive Marketing. To explain what that is, let’s go back a bit: remember when Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo bested the top human player at the game? This wasn’t some computer beating a bored office clerk at the game of Solitaire. In order to achieve that victory, Google’s AI had to “actually show its cognitive capability to ‘think’ like humans, because to win the game, ‘intuition’ was needed rather than just ‘logical reasoning’.” Similar algorithm-powered AI’s are enabling machines to learn and grow on their own. Soon, they’ll reach the potential to create content for marketeers at a massive scale. Not only that, but they’ll always deliver the right content, to the right kind of audience, at just the right time.

More Ways Than One: How Retail Is Harnessing AI & ML

  1. Developing Store That Don’t Need Checkout Lines

Tech companies and online retail giants such as Amazon want to create cashier-free stores, at least they are trying to. Last year Amazon launched its Amazon Go which uses sensors and hundreds of cameras to track what customers pick up and then charge the amount to an application on their smart phone, put simply. But only months into the experiment Amazon has said they need to work out some kinks in the system. As of now, Amazon Go’s system can only handle 20 or so customers at a time.

Among other issues, The Guardian, citing an unnamed source, wrote in an article, stated “…if an item has been moved from its specific spot on the shelf.”  Located in Seattle, Washington, Amazon Go is now running in “beta mode” only for Amazon employees as it tests its systems. And these tests are showing that Amazon’s attempt at a cashier-free brick-and-mortar convenience store is far from ready for the real world. A Journal report stated, “For now, the technology functions flawlessly only if there are a small number of customers present, or when their movements are slow.”

  1. Could Drones Be Delivering Goods to Your Home One Day?

Imagine ordering something online from, let’s say, Amazon, and it arrives at your door in 30 minutes or so via drone. Does that sound like something out of the movie The Fifth Element? Maybe, but this technology is already is already here.

Amazon Prime Air made its first delivery to a customer via a GPS-guided flying drone on December 7th, 2016. It only took 13 minutes for the drone to deliver the merchandise to the customer. This sort of technology will be a huge game changer for retail. The supply chain industry is headed for a revolution – drone delivery is coming, and retailers who want to keep up really should adopt such technologies.

Even in 2016, consumers were totally ready to accept drone delivery. The Walk Sands Future of Retail 2016 Study showed that 79 percent of US consumers said they would be “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to choose drone delivery if their product could be delivered within an hour. For me, I’d choose it just to see how cool it was. I think it would be pretty rad to have a drone land in my yard with my package, don’t you? Furthermore, other consumers stated they would pay up to $10 for a drone delivery. Lastly, 26 percent of consumers are already expecting to have their packages delivered to them in the next two years or so.

Driverless Delivery Vehicles Already Here as Well

There was a movie I watched some months ago – you most likely heard of it or even watched it. It was the latest movie about Wolverine titled Logan. There was a certain scene that never left my memory (basically because I found it awesome) where Logan and his companions were driving along a freeway full of driverless tractor trailers that had no tractor.

In an article written for pastemagazine.com, Carlos Alvarez of Getty wrote: “… Logan’s writer and director James Mangold’s inclusion of the self-driving trucking machines make it clear that the filmmaker understands the writing on the wall about the future of shipping. It’s a future without truck drivers.” He continues to explain that the movie takes place a little over 10 years from now in 2029.

“The change may well be here long before 2029. It’s only 2017, and already we’re seeing the beginnings of automated trucking taking over the industry. At the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show this January, Peloton Technology demonstrated “platooning,” where trucks are kept in a row on the highway to reduce wind resistance and save fuel. The trucks are controlled by computers on a “Level One” of autonomous driving,” Alvarez continued in his article.

Now in Germany, Mercedes-Benz is has been developing and testing their Actros truck which is fitted with a ‘highway pilot’ system, which acts like an auto-pilot and includes a radar and stereo camera system. So far, German carmaker Daimler has restricted testing on a German autobahn. The autobahn is generally safer than testing in city conditions since the curves are not as steep. Since the tests have started, this autonomous truck has already driven over 20,000 kilometres.

Did I Say Flying Taxis? Huh, Yeah I Did!

But, if you are still not amazed, then I am about to blow your socks off. Dubai has promised to build a fully autonomous public transportation system by 2030, including autonomous flying drone taxis! Now that is really something. And it isn’t a matter of when they’ll be produced and in use because they already are.

Manufactured in China by the drone-making firm EHang, these really freaking cool quad drones on steroids can carry one person weighing up to 100 kilogrammes (I weigh over that, guess I’m walking) plus maybe a backpack or suitcase. They can fly about 30 kilometres (or 19 miles), at a speed of 60 miles per hour, give or take. And, if that isn’t the cool part, you won’t need any lessons on how to fly it. Simply push a button and it flies you from point A to point B. Whether or not you have to give it directions, don’t know. Either way, this is mostly likely the coolest piece of tech out there right now.

Copyright @ CBS Interactive Inc.

A quick primer on TensorFlow – Google’s machine learning workhorse

Introducing Google Brains‘ TensorFlow™

This week started with major news for the machine learning and data science community: the Google Brain Team announced the open sourcing of TensorFlow, their numerical library for tensor network computations. This software is actively developed (and used!) within Google and builds on many of Google’s large scale neural network applications such as automatic image labeling and captioning as well as the speech recognition in Google’s apps.

TensorFlow in bullet points

Here are the main features:

  • Supports deep neural networks – and much more machine learning approaches
  • Highly scalable across many machines and huge data sets
  • Runs on desktops, servers, in cloud and even mobile devices
  • Computation can run on CPUs, GPUs or both
  • All this flexibility is covered by a single API making the execution very streamlined
  • Available interfaces: C++ and Python. More will follow (Java, R, Lua, Go…)
  • Comes with many tools helping to build and visualize the data flow networks
  • Includes a powerful gradient based optimizer with auto-differentiation
  • Extensible with C++
  • Usable for commercial applications – released under Apache Software Licence 2.0

Tensor, what? Tensor, why?

„Numerical library for tensor network computations“ maybe doesn’t sound too exciting, but let’s  consider the implications.

Application of tensors and their networks is a relatively new (but fast evolving) approach in machine learning. Tensors, if you recall your algebra classes, are simply n-dimensional data arrays (so a scalar is a 0th order tensor, a vector is 1st order, and a matrix a 2nd order matrix).

A simple practical example of is color image’s RGB layers (essentially three 2D matrices combined into a 3rd order tensor). Or a more business minded example – if your data source generates a table (a 2D array) every hour, you can look at the full data set as a 3rd order tensor – time being the extra dimension.

Tensor networks then represent “data flow graphs”, where the edges are your multi-dimensional data sets and nodes are the mathematical operations on this data.

Example of of a data flow graph with multiple nodes (data operations). Notice how the execution of nodes is asynchronous. This allows incredible scalability across many machines. Image Source.

Looking at your data through the tensor formalism gives you a lot of powerful tools that were already developed for tensor algebra, allowing fast, complex computations.  

Tensor networks are also a natural fit for computations done on graphical processing units (GPUs) as they are built exactly for the purpose of very fast numerical operations on such a data – speeding up your calculations significantly compared to standard CPU execution!

The importance of flexible architecture & scaling

The data flow graph approach has also further advantages. Most notably, you can split the design of your data flows (i.e. data cleaning, processing, transformations, model building etc.) from its execution. You first build up the graph of your data flow and then you send it to for execution: either on the CPUs of your machines (and it can be your laptop just as well as cluster) or GPUs or a combination. This happens through a single interface that hides all the complexities from you.

Since the execution is asynchronous it scales across many machines and can deal with huge amounts of data.

You can count on the Google guys to build tools not only for academic use, but also heavy-duty operations in the industry!

Is this just another deep learning library?

TensorFlow is of course not the first library to embrace the tensor formalism and GPU execution. The nearest comparisons (and competitors) are Theano, Torch and CGT (Caffe to a limited degree).

While there are significant overlaps between the libraries, TensorFlow tries to provide a broader framework. It is not only a deep learning library – the Data Flow Graphs can incorporate any data processing/analysis applications. It also comes with a very powerful gradient based optimizer with automatic calculations of derivatives offering huge flexibility.

Given this broad vision the closest competitor is probably Theano (while Caffe and the existing Theano wrappers have a narrower focus on deep learning). TensorFlow’s distinguishing feature is that by design its focus is on large, scalable architectures with a complete flexibility in the hardware, best suited for industry/operational use, whereas the other libraries have more academic pedigrees.

Initial analyses also indicate that TensorFlow should bring also performance improvements compared to Theano, although no comprehensive benchmarks have yet been published.

As the other packages are out already for a while, they have large, active communities and often additional supporting software (examples are the very useful wrappers around Theano like Lasagne, Keras and Blocks that provider higher level abstractions to its engine).

Of course, with Google’s gravitas, one can expect that TensorFlow’s open source community will grow very fast and the contributors will quickly add a lot of additional features (and find hidden bugs).

Finally, keep in mind, that while Google provided us with this great data processing framework and some of its machine learning capabilities, it is likely that the most powerful machine learning algorithms still remain Google’s proprietary secret.

Nonetheless, TensorFlow is a huge and very welcome contribution to the open source machine learning world!

Where to go next?

You can find Google’s getting started guide here. The TensorFlow white paper is worth a read too. Source code can be found at the Github page. There is also a Vagrant virtual machine with TensorFlow pre-installed available here.