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CIOs should lean on AI 'giants' for machine learning strategy

Components of AI, such as machine and deep learning, will be part and parcel of every enterprise. When devising a machine learning strategy, CIOs should think of it as the next wave of analytics.

NEW YORK -- Machine learning and deep learning will be part of every data science organization, according to Edd...

Wilder-James, former vice president of technology strategy at Silicon Valley Data Science and now an open source strategist at Google's TensorFlow.

Wilder-James, who spoke at the Strata Data Conference, pointed to recent advancements in image and speech recognition algorithms as examples of why machine learning and deep learning are going mainstream. He believes image and speech recognition software has evolved to the point where it can see and understand some things as well as -- and in some use cases better than -- humans. That makes it ripe to become part of the internal workings of applications and the driver of new and better services to internal and external customers, he said.

But what investments in AI should CIOs make to provide these capabilities to their companies? When building a machine learning strategy, choice abounds, Wilder-James said.

Machine learning vs. deep learning

Deep learning is a subset of machine learning, but it's different enough to be discussed separately, according to Wilder-James. Examples of machine learning models include optimization, fraud detection and preventive maintenance. "We use machine learning to identify patterns," Wilder-James said. "Here's a pattern. Now, what do we know? What can we do as a result of identifying this pattern? Can we take action?"

Deep learning models perform tasks that more closely resemble human intelligence such as image processing and recognition. "With a massive amount of compute power, we're able to look at a massively large number of input signals," Wilder-James said. "And, so what a computer is able to do starts to look like human cognitive abilities."

Some of the terrain for machine learning will look familiar to CIOs. Statistical programming languages such as SAS, SPSS and Matlab are known territory for IT departments. Open source counterparts such as R, Python and Spark are also machine-learning ready. "Open source is probably a better guarantee of stability and a good choice to make in terms of avoiding lock-in and ensuring you have support," Wilder-James said.

Keep your eye on this

Edd Wilder-James said tech vendors are beginning to play favorites with machine learning toolkits, and the trend is creating a "little bit of a goldrush."

"You start to see that PyTorch is a big deal at Facebook, and MXNet is a big deal at Amazon Web Services," he said. "There's a bit of a sense that the major tech vendors are trying to compete on which toolkit they're using."

Whether that happens remains to be seen. Wilder-James, for one, is hopeful it won't come to that, calling the vendors "pretty pragmatic." Still, he said, it's something to be aware of.

Unlike other tech rollouts

The rollout of machine learning and deep learning models, however, is a different process than most technology rollouts. After getting a handle on the problem, CIOs will need to investigate if machine learning is even an appropriate solution.

"It may not be true that you can solve it with machine learning," Wilder-James said. "This is one important difference from other technical rollouts. You don't know if you'll be successful or not. You have to enter into this on the pilot, proof-of-concept ladder."

The most time-consuming step in deploying a machine learning model is feature engineering, or finding features in the data that will help the algorithms self-tune. Deep learning models skip the tedious feature engineering step and go right to the training step. To tune a deep learning model correctly requires immense data sets, graphic processing units or tensor processing units, and time. Wilder-James said it could take weeks and even months to train a deep learning model.

One more thing to note: Building deep learning models is hard and won't be a part of most companies' machine learning strategy.

"You have to be aware that a lot of what's coming out is the closest to research IT has ever been," he said. "These things are being published in papers and deployed in production in very short cycles."

CIOs whose companies are not inclined to invest heavily in AI research and development should instead rely on prebuilt, reusable machine and deep learning models rather than reinvent the wheel. Image recognition models, such as Inception, and natural language models, such as SyntaxNet and Parsey McParseface, are examples of models that are ready and available for use.

"You can stand on the shoulders of giants, I guess that's what I'm trying to say," Wilder-James said. "It doesn't have to be from scratch."

Machine learning tech

The good news for CIOs is that vendors have set the stage to start building a machine learning strategy now. TensorFlow, a machine learning software library, is one of the best known toolkits out there. "It's got the buzz because it's an open source project out of Google," Wilder-James said. "It runs fast and is ubiquitous."

While not terribly developer-friendly, a simplified interface called Keras eases the burden and can handle the majority of use cases. And TensorFlow isn't the only deep learning library or framework option, either. Others include MXNet, PyTorch, CNTK, and Deeplearning4j.

For CIOs who want AI to live on premises, technologies such as Nvidia's DGX-1 box, which retails for $129,000, are available.

But CIOs can also utilize cloud as a computing resource, which would cost anywhere between $5 and $15 an hour, according to Wilder-James. "I worked it out, and the cloud cost is roughly the same as running the physical machine continuously for about a year," he said.

Or they can choose to go the hosted platform route, where a service provider will run trained models for a company. And other tools, such as domain-specific proprietary tools like the personalization platform from Nara Logics, can fill out the AI infrastructure.

"It's the same kind of range we have with plenty of other services out there," he said. "Do you rent an EC2 instance to run a database or do you subscribe to Amazon Redshift? You can pick the level of abstraction that you want for these services."

Still, before investments in technology and talent are made, a machine learning strategy should start with the basics: "The single best thing you can do to prepare with AI in the future is to develop a competency with your own data, whether it's getting access to data, integrating data out of silos, providing data results readily to employees," Wilder-James said. "Understanding how to get at your data is going to be the thing to prepare you best."

Next Steps

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