The Fallacious Simplicity of Deep Learning: zat is ze question?

This post is the fifth and last in a series of posts about the “Fallacious Simplicity of Deep Learning”. I have seen too many comments from non-practitioner who thinks Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL) are easy. That any computer programmer following a few hours of training should be able to tackle any problem because after all there are plenty of libraries nowadays… (or other such excuses). This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I will give at the Ericsson Business Area Digital Services technology day on December 5th. So, for my Ericsson fellows, if you happen to be in Kista that day, don’t hesitate to come see it!

In the last posts, we’ve seen that the first complexity lay around the size of the machine learning and deep learning community. There are not enough skilled and knowledgeable peoples in the field. The second complexity lay in the fact that the technology is relatively new, thus the frameworks are quickly evolving and requires software stacks that range from all the way down to the specialized hardware we use. The third complexity was all about hyper-parameter setting, a skill specific to machine learning and that you will need to acquire. The fourth complexity dealt with data, how to obtain it, how to clean it, how to tame it.

The next challenge we will look at is ze question. When we start a new machine learning project, we might have a question we want to answer. Through data exploration we might find that this question cannot be answered directly with the data we have. Maybe we figure the question is not that interesting after all. It all boils down to fast feedback. You need to explore your data, try to answer a question and see where it leads. Then it is time for discussion with the stakeholders, is it what they are looking for? Does it bring value?

There is different type of questions machine learning can answer, but it is not unlimited. Do we want to sort things in similar buckets, do we want to predict such and such value, do we want to find examples that are abnormal? In order for a machine learning exercise to be successful, you need a really specific question to answer: Is this subscriber an IoT device or a Human? Then you need proper data. Using the Canadian census data to try to answer to figure out if a mobile phone subscriber is a Human or a Machine might not work! But with the proper data we could start to explore if there is a model between some data, for example IP addresses visited, time of those visits, etc. and the fact the subscriber is a Machine or a Human.

Often the question will evolve with time, through discussion. You need to be ready for that evolution, for that change. You might have to bring in new data, new methods, new algorithms. It is all about searching and researching, trials and errors, finding new paths. Getting access to the data might be the biggest difficulty, but finding the right question is certainly the second.

The fifth complexity: finding the right question.

Through this series I have detailed five complexities to deep learning (and machine learning in general). There are many more. The machine learning “process” is not like software development. In general, it requires a lot more exploration and researching than regular software development. It requires an higher level of “artistic flair” than you would need to write a regular software application. There are other things that differentiate machine learning from software development, but I think those are the five first and biggest complexity one can face when developing a machine learning model:

  • First you need access to data, and that might not be trivial. You will also need to clean that data and ensure you have a consistent flow.
  • Second you will need to find the right question. This may require many iterations and might require new data sources as well.
  • Third, the results may look simple, but the code itself does not show everything that is hidden behind the curtain. A lot has to do with hyper-parameter setting and tweaking and there is no cookbook for this. The APIs do not tell you what values will give good results.
  • Fourth, machine learning requires specific competence. Some of those competences have to do with software development, but some other are quite different. It is a relatively new domain and the community size is still smaller than others in software development. Moreover, this is a highly in demand skill set and hard to find in the wild.
  • Finally, this is a quickly evolving domain which range from specialized hardware to specialized software stacks. In software development peoples are accustomed to quickly evolving environment, but the pace and breath at which it goes in machine learning might well be unprecedented.

I hope this series could give you a better appreciation of the complexities of deep learning and machine learning. It may look easy when you look at the results and the code that supports it, but there is a lot of things you are not given to see! Artificial Intelligence field will continue to grow in the coming years and will enter in way more aspect of your daily lives. This will require peoples trained in deep learning, machine learning and data science as this is not simply the usage of yet another software library.

Originally published at on November 28, 2017.

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