‘The portion of evolution in which animals developed eyes was a big development. Now computers have eyes.’
3. A Deep Explanation of Deep Learning
When Pichai said that Google would henceforth be “A.I. first,” he was not just making a claim about his company’s business strategy; he was throwing in his company’s lot with this long-unworkable idea. Pichai’s allocation of resources ensured that people like Dean could ensure that people like Hinton would have, at long last, enough computers and enough data to make a persuasive argument. An average brain has something on the order of 100 billion neurons. Each neuron is connected to up to 10,000 other neurons, which means that the number of synapses is between 100 trillion and 1,000 trillion. For a simple artificial neural network of the sort proposed in the 1940s, the attempt to even try to replicate this was unimaginable. We’re still far from the construction of a network of that size, but Google Brain’s investment allowed for the creation of artificial neural networks comparable to the brains of mice.
To understand why scale is so important, however, you have to start to understand some of the more technical details of what, exactly, machine intelligences are doing with the data they consume. A lot of our ambient fears about A.I. rest on the idea that they’re just vacuuming up knowledge like a sociopathic prodigy in a library, and that an artificial intelligence constructed to make paper clips might someday decide to treat humans like ants or lettuce. This just isn’t how they work. All they’re doing is shuffling information around in search of commonalities — basic patterns, at first, and then more complex ones — and for the moment, at least, the greatest danger is that the information we’re feeding them is biased in the first place.
If that brief explanation seems sufficiently reassuring, the reassured nontechnical reader is invited to skip forward to the next section, which is about cats. If not, then read on. (This section is also, luckily, about cats.)
Imagine you want to program a cat-recognizer on the old symbolic-A.I. model. You stay up for days preloading the machine with an exhaustive, explicit definition of “cat.” You tell it that a cat has four legs and pointy ears and whiskers and a tail, and so on. All this information is stored in a special place in memory called Cat. Now you show it a picture. First, the machine has to separate out the various distinct elements of the image. Then it has to take these elements and apply the rules stored in its memory. If(legs=4) and if(ears=pointy) and if(whiskers=yes) and if(tail=yes) and if(expression=supercilious), then(cat=yes). But what if you showed this cat-recognizer a Scottish Fold, a heart-rending breed with a prized genetic defect that leads to droopy doubled-over ears? Our symbolic A.I. gets to (ears=pointy) and shakes its head solemnly, “Not cat.” It is hyperliteral, or “brittle.” Even the thickest toddler shows much greater inferential acuity.
Now imagine that instead of hard-wiring the machine with a set of rules for classification stored in one location of the computer’s memory, you try the same thing on a neural network. There is no special place that can hold the definition of “cat.” There is just a giant blob of interconnected switches, like forks in a path. On one side of the blob, you present the inputs (the pictures); on the other side, you present the corresponding outputs (the labels). Then you just tell it to work out for itself, via the individual calibration of all of these interconnected switches, whatever path the data should take so that the inputs are mapped to the correct outputs. The training is the process by which a labyrinthine series of elaborate tunnels are excavated through the blob, tunnels that connect any given input to its proper output. The more training data you have, the greater the number and intricacy of the tunnels that can be dug. Once the training is complete, the middle of the blob has enough tunnels that it can make reliable predictions about how to handle data it has never seen before. This is called “supervised learning.”
The reason that the network requires so many neurons and so much data is that it functions, in a way, like a sort of giant machine democracy. Imagine you want to train a computer to differentiate among five different items. Your network is made up of millions and millions of neuronal “voters,” each of whom has been given five different cards: one for cat, one for dog, one for spider monkey, one for spoon and one for defibrillator. You show your electorate a photo and ask, “Is this a cat, a dog, a spider monkey, a spoon or a defibrillator?” All the neurons that voted the same way collect in groups, and the network foreman peers down from above and identifies the majority classification: “A dog?”
You say: “No, maestro, it’s a cat. Try again.”
Now the network foreman goes back to identify which voters threw their weight behind “cat” and which didn’t. The ones that got “cat” right get their votes counted double next time — at least when they’re voting for “cat.” They have to prove independently whether they’re also good at picking out dogs and defibrillators, but one thing that makes a neural network so flexible is that each individual unit can contribute differently to different desired outcomes. What’s important is not the individual vote, exactly, but the pattern of votes. If Joe, Frank and Mary all vote together, it’s a dog; but if Joe, Kate and Jessica vote together, it’s a cat; and if Kate, Jessica and Frank vote together, it’s a defibrillator. The neural network just needs to register enough of a regularly discernible signal somewhere to say, “Odds are, this particular arrangement of pixels represents something these humans keep calling ‘cats.’ ” The more “voters” you have, and the more times you make them vote, the more keenly the network can register even very weak signals. If you have only Joe, Frank and Mary, you can maybe use them only to differentiate among a cat, a dog and a defibrillator. If you have millions of different voters that can associate in billions of different ways, you can learn to classify data with incredible granularity. Your trained voter assembly will be able to look at an unlabeled picture and identify it more or less accurately.
Part of the reason there was so much resistance to these ideas in computer-science departments is that because the output is just a prediction based on patterns of patterns, it’s not going to be perfect, and the machine will never be able to define for you what, exactly, a cat is. It just knows them when it sees them. This wooliness, however, is the point. The neuronal “voters” will recognize a happy cat dozing in the sun and an angry cat glaring out from the shadows of an untidy litter box, as long as they have been exposed to millions of diverse cat scenes. You just need lots and lots of the voters — in order to make sure that some part of your network picks up on even very weak regularities, on Scottish Folds with droopy ears, for example — and enough labeled data to make sure your network has seen the widest possible variance in phenomena.
It is important to note, however, that the fact that neural networks are probabilistic in nature means that they’re not suitable for all tasks. It’s no great tragedy if they mislabel 1 percent of cats as dogs, or send you to the wrong movie on occasion, but in something like a self-driving car we all want greater assurances. This isn’t the only caveat. Supervised learning is a trial-and-error process based on labeled data. The machines might be doing the learning, but there remains a strong human element in the initial categorization of the inputs. If your data had a picture of a man and a woman in suits that someone had labeled “woman with her boss,” that relationship would be encoded into all future pattern recognition. Labeled data is thus fallible the way that human labelers are fallible. If a machine was asked to identify creditworthy candidates for loans, it might use data like felony convictions, but if felony convictions were unfair in the first place — if they were based on, say, discriminatory drug laws — then the loan recommendations would perforce also be fallible.
Image-recognition networks like our cat-identifier are only one of many varieties of deep learning, but they are disproportionately invoked as teaching examples because each layer does something at least vaguely recognizable to humans — picking out edges first, then circles, then faces. This means there’s a safeguard against error. For instance, an early oddity in Google’s image-recognition software meant that it could not always identify a barbell in isolation, even though the team had trained it on an image set that included a lot of exercise categories. A visualization tool showed them the machine had learned not the concept of “dumbbell” but the concept of “dumbbell+arm,” because all the dumbbells in the training set were attached to arms. They threw into the training mix some photos of solo barbells. The problem was solved. Not everything is so easy.
Google Brain’s investment allowed for the creation of artificial neural networks comparable to the brains of mice.
4. The Cat Paper
Over the course of its first year or two, Brain’s efforts to cultivate in machines the skills of a 1-year-old were auspicious enough that the team was graduated out of the X lab and into the broader research organization. (The head of Google X once noted that Brain had paid for the entirety of X’s costs.) They still had fewer than 10 people and only a vague sense for what might ultimately come of it all. But even then they were thinking ahead to what ought to happen next. First a human mind learns to recognize a ball and rests easily with the accomplishment for a moment, but sooner or later, it wants to ask for the ball. And then it wades into language.
The first step in that direction was the cat paper, which made Brain famous.
What the cat paper demonstrated was that a neural network with more than a billion “synaptic” connections — a hundred times larger than any publicized neural network to that point, yet still many orders of magnitude smaller than our brains — could observe raw, unlabeled data and pick out for itself a high-order human concept. The Brain researchers had shown the network millions of still frames from YouTube videos, and out of the welter of the pure sensorium the network had isolated a stable pattern any toddler or chipmunk would recognize without a moment’s hesitation as the face of a cat. The machine had not been programmed with the foreknowledge of a cat; it reached directly into the world and seized the idea for itself. (The researchers discovered this with the neural-network equivalent of something like an M.R.I., which showed them that a ghostly cat face caused the artificial neurons to “vote” with the greatest collective enthusiasm.) Most machine learning to that point had been limited by the quantities of labeled data. The cat paper showed that machines could also deal with raw unlabeled data, perhaps even data of which humans had no established foreknowledge. This seemed like a major advance not only in cat-recognition studies but also in overall artificial intelligence.
The lead author on the cat paper was Quoc Le. Le is short and willowy and soft-spoken, with a quick, enigmatic smile and shiny black penny loafers. He grew up outside Hue, Vietnam. His parents were rice farmers, and he did not have electricity at home. His mathematical abilities were obvious from an early age, and he was sent to study at a magnet school for science. In the late 1990s, while still in school, he tried to build a chatbot to talk to. He thought, How hard could this be?
“But actually,” he told me in a whispery deadpan, “it’s very hard.”
He left the rice paddies on a scholarship to a university in Canberra, Australia, where he worked on A.I. tasks like computer vision. The dominant method of the time, which involved feeding the machine definitions for things like edges, felt to him like cheating. Le didn’t know then, or knew only dimly, that there were at least a few dozen computer scientists elsewhere in the world who couldn’t help imagining, as he did, that machines could learn from scratch. In 2006, Le took a position at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in the medieval German university town of Tübingen. In a reading group there, he encountered two new papers by Geoffrey Hinton. People who entered the discipline during the long diaspora all have conversion stories, and when Le read those papers, he felt the scales fall away from his eyes.
“There was a big debate,” he told me. “A very big debate.” We were in a small interior conference room, a narrow, high-ceilinged space outfitted with only a small table and two whiteboards. He looked to the curve he’d drawn on the whiteboard behind him and back again, then softly confided, “I’ve never seen such a big debate.”
He remembers standing up at the reading group and saying, “This is the future.” It was, he said, an “unpopular decision at the time.” A former adviser from Australia, with whom he had stayed close, couldn’t quite understand Le’s decision. “Why are you doing this?” he asked Le in an email.
“I didn’t have a good answer back then,” Le said. “I was just curious. There was a successful paradigm, but to be honest I was just curious about the new paradigm. In 2006, there was very little activity.” He went to join Ng at Stanford and began to pursue Hinton’s ideas. “By the end of 2010, I was pretty convinced something was going to happen.”
What happened, soon afterward, was that Le went to Brain as its first intern, where he carried on with his dissertation work — an extension of which ultimately became the cat paper. On a simple level, Le wanted to see if the computer could be trained to identify on its own the information that was absolutely essential to a given image. He fed the neural network a still he had taken from YouTube. He then told the neural network to throw away some of the information contained in the image, though he didn’t specify what it should or shouldn’t throw away. The machine threw away some of the information, initially at random. Then he said: “Just kidding! Now recreate the initial image you were shown based only on the information you retained.” It was as if he were asking the machine to find a way to “summarize” the image, and then expand back to the original from the summary. If the summary was based on irrelevant data — like the color of the sky rather than the presence of whiskers — the machine couldn’t perform a competent reconstruction. Its reaction would be akin to that of a distant ancestor whose takeaway from his brief exposure to saber-tooth tigers was that they made a restful swooshing sound when they moved. Le’s neural network, unlike that ancestor, got to try again, and again and again and again. Each time it mathematically “chose” to prioritize different pieces of information and performed incrementally better. A neural network, however, was a black box. It divined patterns, but the patterns it identified didn’t always make intuitive sense to a human observer. The same network that hit on our concept of cat also became enthusiastic about a pattern that looked like some sort of furniture-animal compound, like a cross between an ottoman and a goat.
Le didn’t see himself in those heady cat years as a language guy, but he felt an urge to connect the dots to his early chatbot. After the cat paper, he realized that if you could ask a network to summarize a photo, you could perhaps also ask it to summarize a sentence. This problem preoccupied Le, along with a Brain colleague named Tomas Mikolov, for the next two years.
In that time, the Brain team outgrew several offices around him. For a while they were on a floor they shared with executives. They got an email at one point from the administrator asking that they please stop allowing people to sleep on the couch in front of Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s suite. It unsettled incoming V.I.P.s. They were then allocated part of a research building across the street, where their exchanges in the microkitchen wouldn’t be squandered on polite chitchat with the suits. That interim also saw dedicated attempts on the part of Google’s competitors to catch up. (As Le told me about his close collaboration with Tomas Mikolov, he kept repeating Mikolov’s name over and over, in an incantatory way that sounded poignant. Le had never seemed so solemn. I finally couldn’t help myself and began to ask, “Is he ... ?” Le nodded. “At Facebook,” he replied.)
They spent this period trying to come up with neural-network architectures that could accommodate not only simple photo classifications, which were static, but also complex structures that unfolded over time, like language or music. Many of these were first proposed in the 1990s, and Le and his colleagues went back to those long-ignored contributions to see what they could glean. They knew that once you established a facility with basic linguistic prediction, you could then go on to do all sorts of other intelligent things — like predict a suitable reply to an email, for example, or predict the flow of a sensible conversation. You could sidle up to the sort of prowess that would, from the outside at least, look a lot like thinking.
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