AI @ Google

Source: NYTimes, Dec 2016

The Google of the future, Pichai had said on several occasions, was going to be “A.I. first.” What that meant in theory was complicated and had welcomed much speculation. What it meant in practice, with any luck, was that soon the company’s products would no longer represent the fruits of traditional computer programming, exactly, but “machine learning.”

A rarefied department within the company, Google Brain, was founded five years ago on this very principle: that artificial “neural networks” that acquaint themselves with the world via trial and error, as toddlers do, might in turn develop something like human flexibility.

Since 2011, though, Google Brain has demonstrated that this approach to artificial intelligence could solve many problems that confounded decades of conventional efforts. Speech recognition didn’t work very well until Brain undertook an effort to revamp it; the application of machine learning made its performance on Google’s mobile platform, Android, almost as good as human transcription. The same was true of image recognition. Less than a year ago, Brain for the first time commenced with the gut renovation of an entire consumer product, and its momentous results were being celebrated tonight.

Google’s decision to reorganize itself around A.I. was the first major manifestation of what has become an industrywide machine-learning delirium.

What is at stake is not just one more piecemeal innovation but control over what very well could represent an entirely new computational platform: pervasive, ambient artificial intelligence.

When he has an opportunity to make careful distinctions, Pichai differentiates between the current applications of A.I. and the ultimate goal of “artificial general intelligence.” Artificial general intelligence will not involve dutiful adherence to explicit instructions, but instead will demonstrate a facility with the implicit, the interpretive.

There has always been another vision for A.I. — a dissenting view — in which the computers would learn from the ground up (from data) rather than from the top down (from rules). This notion dates to the early 1940s, when it occurred to researchers that the best model for flexible automated intelligence was the brain itself. A brain, after all, is just a bunch of widgets, called neurons, that either pass along an electrical charge to their neighbors or don’t. What’s important are less the individual neurons themselves than the manifold connections among them. This structure, in its simplicity, has afforded the brain a wealth of adaptive advantages. The brain can operate in circumstances in which information is poor or missing; it can withstand significant damage without total loss of control; it can store a huge amount of knowledge in a very efficient way; it can isolate distinct patterns but retain the messiness necessary to handle ambiguity.

Aarrangements of simple artificial neurons could carry out basic logical functions. They could also, at least in theory, learn the way we do. With life experience, depending on a particular person’s trials and errors, the synaptic connections among pairs of neurons get stronger or weaker. An artificial neural network could do something similar, by gradually altering, on a guided trial-and-error basis, the numerical relationships among artificial neurons. It wouldn’t need to be preprogrammed with fixed rules. It would, instead, rewire itself to reflect patterns in the data it absorbed.

Minsky’s criticism of the Perceptron extended only to networks of one “layer,” i.e., one layer of artificial neurons between what’s fed to the machine and what you expect from it — and later in life, he expounded ideas very similar to contemporary deep learning. But Hinton already knew at the time that complex tasks could be carried out if you had recourse to multiple layers. The simplest description of a neural network is that it’s a machine that makes classifications or predictions based on its ability to discover patterns in data. With one layer, you could find only simple patterns; with more than one, you could look for patterns of patterns.

Each successive layer of the network looks for a pattern in the previous layer.

parallels the way information is put together in increasingly abstract ways as it travels from the photoreceptors in the retina back and up through the visual cortex. At each conceptual step, detail that isn’t immediately relevant is thrown away. If several edges and circles come together to make a face, you don’t care exactly where the face is found in the visual field; you just care that it’s a face.

These ideas remained popular, however, among philosophers and psychologists, who called it “connectionism” or “parallel distributed processing.” “This idea,” Hinton told me, “of a few people keeping a torch burning, it’s a nice myth. It was true within artificial intelligence. But within psychology lots of people believed in the approach but just couldn’t do it.”

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.

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.

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.

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.)

Le and two colleagues finally demonstrated that neural networks might be configured to handle the structure of language. He drew upon an idea, called “word embeddings,” that had been around for more than 10 years. When you summarize images, you can divine a picture of what each stage of the summary looks like — an edge, a circle, etc. When you summarize language in a similar way, you essentially produce multidimensional maps of the distances, based on common usage, between one word and every single other word in the language. The machine is not “analyzing” the data the way that we might, with linguistic rules that identify some of them as nouns and others as verbs. Instead, it is shifting and twisting and warping the words around in the map. In two dimensions, you cannot make this map useful. You want, for example, “cat” to be in the rough vicinity of “dog,” but you also want “cat” to be near “tail” and near “supercilious” and near “meme,” because you want to try to capture all of the different relationships — both strong and weak — that the word “cat” has to other words. It can be related to all these other words simultaneously only if it is related to each of them in a different dimension. You can’t easily make a 160,000-dimensional map, but it turns out you can represent a language pretty well in a mere thousand or so dimensions — in other words, a universe in which each word is designated by a list of a thousand numbers. Le gave me a good-natured hard time for my continual requests for a mental picture of these maps. “Gideon,” he would say, with the blunt regular demurral of Bartleby, “I do not generally like trying to visualize thousand-dimensional vectors in three-dimensional space.”

Still, certain dimensions in the space, it turned out, did seem to represent legible human categories, like gender or relative size. If you took the thousand numbers that meant “king” and literally just subtracted the thousand numbers that meant “queen,” you got the same numerical result as if you subtracted the numbers for “woman” from the numbers for “man.” And if you took the entire space of the English language and the entire space of French, you could, at least in theory, train a network to learn how to take a sentence in one space and propose an equivalent in the other. You just had to give it millions and millions of English sentences as inputs on one side and their desired French outputs on the other, and over time it would recognize the relevant patterns in words the way that an image classifier recognized the relevant patterns in pixels. You could then give it a sentence in English and ask it to predict the best French analogue.

The major difference between words and pixels, however, is that all of the pixels in an image are there at once, whereas words appear in a progression over time. You needed a way for the network to “hold in mind” the progression of a chronological sequence — the complete pathway from the first word to the last. In a period of about a week, in September 2014, three papers came out — one by Le and two others by academics in Canada and Germany — that at last provided all the theoretical tools necessary to do this sort of thing. That research allowed for open-ended projects like Brain’s Magenta, an investigation into how machines might generate art and music. It also cleared the way toward an instrumental task like machine translation. Hinton told me he thought at the time that this follow-up work would take at least five more years.

And in the more distant, speculative future, machine translation was perhaps the first step toward a general computational facility with human language. This would represent a major inflection point — perhaps the major inflection point — in the development of something that felt like true artificial intelligence.

The most important thing happening in Silicon Valley right now is not disruption. Rather, it’s institution-building — and the consolidation of power — on a scale and at a pace that are both probably unprecedented in human history. Brain has interns; it has residents; it has “ninja” classes to train people in other departments

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