A New DAWN for Data Analytics

We are in the golden age of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Sustained algorithmic advances coupled with the availability of massive datasets and fast parallel computing have led to breakthroughs in applications that would have been considered science fiction even a few years ago. Over the past five years, voice-driven personal assistants have become commonplace, image recognition systems have reached human quality, and autonomous vehicles are rapidly become broadly available. Given these successes, there is no doubt that machine learning will transform most areas of our economy and society. Businesses, governments and scientific labs are clamoring to see how machine learning can tackle their problems.

Unfortunately, although new machine learning (ML) applications are impressive, they are very expensive to build. Every major new ML product, such as Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa, or Tesla Autopilot, required large and costly teams of domain experts, data scientists, data engineers, and DevOps to realize. Even within these successful organizations, ML remains a rare and expensive commodity. Moreover, many application areas require even more effort to obtain training data to feed their ML algorithms; for example, even though an ML algorithm achieves human quality in identifying pictures of dogs on the Internet (thanks to millions of available labeled images), the algorithm will not achieve the same quality identifying cancer in medical images unless an organization expends countless hours of human expert time creating training data sets. Finally, once an ML product is built, it requires effort to deploy, operate, and monitor at scale, especially if critical business processes will rely on it. In summary, ML technology is at a similar stage to early digital computers, where armies of technicians clad in white labored to keep a small handful of machines operating in production: ML technology clearly has tremendous potential, but today’s ML-powered systems remain far too expensive to build for most application domains.

To address this potential, our group at Stanford is beginning a new, five-year research project to design systems infrastructure and tools for usable machine learning, called DAWN (Data Analytics for What’s Next). Our goal is not to improve ML algorithms, which are almost always “good enough” for many important applications, but instead to make ML usable so that small teams of non-ML experts can apply ML to their problems, achieve high-quality results, and deploy production systems that can be used in critical applications. While today’s ML successes have required large and costly teams of statisticians and engineers, we would like to make similar successes attainable for domain experts—for example, a hospital optimizing medical procedures, a scientist parsing terabytes of data from instruments, or a business applying ML to its domain-specific problems. Major improvements in the usability of machine learning are mandatory to realize its potential. In brief, we ask:

How can we enable anyone with domain expertise to build their own production-quality data products (without requiring a team of PhDs in machine learning, databases, and distributed systems, and without understanding the latest hardware)?

At first, our goal of usable machine learning might appear too ambitious—how can we expect one or two domain experts to match work that today requires teams of tens to hundreds? Our observation is that such revolutions ``democratizing’’ computing technology have happened before. For example, although textual search is a complex field requiring sophisticated algorithms and data structures, today, search is ubiquitous. Non-expert users rely on search engines every day, and any developer can add search to an application by linking a library such as Lucene or Solr. These libraries offer good enough results out of the box, and simple enough tuning options, to be usable by non-experts. Similarly, in the 1970s, relational databases revolutionized data management. Before modern databases, organizations built computer applications using low-level code that had to directly manipulate on-disk data structures and implement complex processing algorithms. Databases encapsulated this complexity behind simple interfaces that any developer can use, and that most users can even tune without understanding system internals. As a result, organizations need to spend far less effort to build a data management application, and many run thousands of such applications.

With history as a guide, our key observation is that most of the effort in industrial ML applications is not spent in devising new learning algorithms or models but is instead spent in three other areas: data preparation, feature selection, and productionization1. Data preparation means acquiring, producing and cleaning enough training data to feed into an ML algorithm: without this quality data, ML algorithms fall flat. Feature selection means identifying the data characteristics and behaviors of interest: what aspects of data are most important, and what would a domain expert implicitly or explicitly say about a given data point? Productionization means deploying, monitoring and debugging a robust product: how can an organization check that the ML algorithm deployed is working, debug issues that arise, and make the system robust to changes in data? In the large teams that build ML products such as Siri, most of the individuals work on data preparation, feature selection, productionization, and the distributed systems infrastructure to drive these tasks at scale, not on training ML algorithms. However, thus far, these critical process of the ML product pipeline have received far less attention than model training and new model tweaks—both from the research community and the open source software community—and, based on our prior work in this area, we see substantial opportunity to greatly reduce the effort for these tasks.

Stay tuned.