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Google employs some of the world’s smartest researchers in deep learning and artificial intelligence, so it’s not a bad idea to listen to what they have to say about the space. One of those researchers, senior research scientist Greg Corrado, spoke at RE:WORK’s Deep Learning Summit on Thursday in San Francisco and gave some advice on when, why and how to use deep learning.
His talk was pragmatic and potentially very useful for folks who have heard about deep learning and how great it is — well, at computer vision, language understanding and speech recognition, at least — and are now wondering whether they should try using it for something. The TL;DR version is “maybe,” but here’s a little more nuanced advice from Corrado’s talk.
(And, of course, if you want to learn even more about deep learning, you can attend Gigaom’s Structure Data conference in March and our inaugural Structure Intelligence conference in September. You can also watch the presentations from our Future of AI meetup, which was held in late 2014.)
1. It’s not always necessary, even if it would work
Probably the most-useful piece of advice Corrado gave is that deep learning isn’t necessarily the best approach to solving a problem, even if it would offer the best results. Presently, it’s computationally expensive (in all meanings of the word), it often requires a lot of data (more on that later) and probably requires some in-house expertise if you’re building systems yourself.
So while deep learning might ultimately work well on pattern-recognition tasks on structured data — fraud detection, stock-market prediction or analyzing sales pipelines, for example — Corrado said it’s easier to justify in the areas where it’s already widely used. “In machine perception, deep learning is so much better than the second-best approach that it’s hard to argue with,” he explained, while the gap between deep learning and other options is not so great in other applications.
That being said, I found myself in multiple conversations at the event centered around the opportunity to soup up existing enterprise software markets with deep learning and met a few startups trying to do it. In an on-stage interview I did with Baidu’s Andrew Ng (who worked alongside Corrado on the Google Brain project) earlier in the day, he noted how deep learning is currently powering some ad serving at Baidu and suggested that data center operations (something Google is actually exploring) might be a good fit.
2. You don’t have to be Google to do it
Even when companies do decide to take on deep learning work, they don’t need to aim for systems as big as those at Google or Facebook or Baidu, Corrado said. “The answer is definitely not,” he reiterated. “. . . You only need an engine big enough for the rocket fuel available.”
The rocket analogy is a reference to something Ng said in our interview, explaining the tight relationship between systems design and data volume in deep learning environments. Corrado explained that Google needs a huge system because it’s working with huge volumes of data and needs to be able to move quickly as its research evolves. But if you know what you want to do or don’t have major time constraints, he said, smaller systems could work just fine.
For getting started, he added later, a desktop computer could actually work provided it has a sufficiently capable GPU.
3. But you probably need a lot of data
However, Corrado cautioned, it’s no joke that training deep learning models really does take a lot of data. Ideally as much as you can get yours hands on. If he’s advising executives on when they should consider deep learning, it pretty much comes down to (a) whether they’re trying to solve a machine perception problem and/or (b) whether they have “a mountain of data.”
If they don’t have a mountain of data, he might suggest they get one. At least 100 trainable observations per feature you want to train is a good start, he said, adding that it’s conceivable to waste months of effort trying to optimize a model that would have been solved a lot quicker if you had just spent some time gathering training data early on.
Corrado said he views his job not as building intelligent computers (artificial intelligence) or building computers that can learn (machine learning), but as building computers that can learn to be intelligent. And, he said, “You have to have a lot of data in order for that to work.”
4. It’s not really based on the brain
Corrado received his Ph.D. in neuroscience and worked on IBM’s SyNAPSE neurosynaptic chip before coming to Google, and says he feels confident in saying that deep learning is only loosely based on how the brain works. And that’s based on what little we know about the brain to begin with.
Earlier in the day, Ng said about the same thing. To drive the point home, he noted that while many researchers believe we learn in an unsupervised manner, most production deep learning models today are still trained in a supervised manner. That is, they analyze lots of labeled images, speech samples or whatever in order to learn what it is.
And comparisons to the brain, while easier than nuanced explanations, tend to lead to overinflated connotations about what deep learning is or might be capable of. “This analogy,” Corrado said, “is now officially overhyped.”
Update: This post was updated on Feb. 2 to correct a statement about Corrado’s tenure at Google. He was with the company before Andrew Ng and the Google Brain project, and was not recruited by Ng to work on it, as originally reported.