Tuesday Update

If you weren’t sick of Theranos yet….

Looks like there will be a movie version of the Theranos saga which, as far as I can tell, isn’t over yet, but no matter. It will be done by Adam McKay, the writer-director of The Big Short (excellent film), and will star Jennifer Lawrence as Elizabeth Holmes. From Vanity Fair:

Legendary Pictures snapped up rights to the hot-button biopic for a reported $3 million Thursday evening, after outbidding and outlasting a swarm of competition from Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox, STX Entertainment, Regency Enterprises, Cross Creek, Amazon Studios, AG Capital, the Weinstein Company, and, in the penultimate stretch, Paramount, among other studio suitors.

Based on a book proposal by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Carreyrou titled Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in Silicon Valley, the project (reported to be in the $40 million to $50 million budget range) has made the rounds to almost every studio in town. It’s been personally pitched by McKay, who won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for last year’s rollicking financial meltdown procedural The Big Short.

Frankly, I think we all know how this movie will end.

The People vs. OJ Simpson vs….Statistics

I’m in the middle of watching The People vs. OJ Simpson and so far it is fantastic—I highly recommend it. One thing that is not represented in the show is the important role that statistics played in the trial. The trial was just in the early days of using DNA as evidence in criminal trials and there were many questions about how likely it was to find DNA matches in blood.

Terry Speed ended up testifying for the defense (Simpson) and in this nice interview, he explains how that came to be:

At the beginning of the Simpson trial, there was going to be a pre-trial hearing and experts from both sides would argue in front of the judge as to what approaches should be accepted. Other pre-trial activities dragged on, and the one on DNA forensics was eventually scrapped. The DNA experts, including me were then asked whether they wanted to give evidence for the prosecution or defence, or leave. I did not initially plan to join the defence team, but wished to express my point of view in what was more or less a scientific environment before the trial started, but when the pre-trial DNA hearing was scrapped, I decided that I had no choice but to express my views in court on behalf of the defence, which I did.

The full interview is well worth the read.

AI is the residual

I just recently found out about the AI effect which I thought was interesting. Basically, “AI” is whatever can’t be explained, or in other words, the residuals of machine learning.

A Year at Stack Overflow

David Robinson (@drob) has a great post on his blog about his first year as a data scientist at Stack Overflow. This section in particular stood out for me:

I like using R to learn interesting things about our data, but my longer term goal is to make it easy for any of our engineers to do so….Towards this goal, I’ve been focusing on building reliable tools and frameworks that people can apply to a variety of problems, rather than “one-off” analysis scripts. (There’s an awesome post by Jeff Magnusson at StitchFix about some of these general challenges). My approach has been building internal R packages, similar to AirBnb’s strategy (though our data team is quite a bit younger and smaller than theirs). These internal packages can query databases and parsing our internal APIs, including making various security and infrastructure issues invisible to the user.

The world needs an army of David Robinsons.

Ultimate AI battle - Apple vs. Google

Yesterday, Apple launched its Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) and had its public keynote address. While many new things were announced, the one thing that caught my eye was the dramatic expansion of Apple’s use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools. I talked a bit about AI with Hilary Parker on the latest Not So Standard Deviations, particularly in the context of Amazon’s Echo/Alexa, and I think it’s definitely going to be an area of intense competition between the major tech companies.

Pretty much every major tech player is involved in AI—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft—the list goes on. Recently, a some commentators have suggested that Apple in particular will never catch up with the likes of Google with respect to AI because of Apple’s strict stance on privacy and unwillingness to gather/aggregate data from all its users. However, yesterday at WWDC, Apple revealed a few clues about what it was up to in the AI world.

First, Apple mentioned deep learning more than a few times, including specifically calling out its use of LSTM in its Messages app and facial recognition in its Photos app. Previously, Apple had been rumored to be applying deep learning to its Siri assistant and its fingerprint sensor. At WWDC, Craig Federighi stressed Apple’s continued focus on privacy and how Apple does not need to develop “user profiles” server-side, but rather does most computation on-device (in this case, on the iPhone).

However, it can’t be that Apple does all its deep learning computation on the iPhone. These models tend to be enormous and take advantage of reams of data that can only be reasonablly processed server-side. Unfortunately, because most companies (Apple in particular) release few details about what they do, we may never how this works. But we can definitely speculate!

Apple vs. Google

I think the Apple/Google dichotomy provides an interesting opportunity to talk about how models can be learned using data in different ways. There are two approaches being represented here by Apple and Google:

  • Google way - Collect lots of data from users and store them on a server in the Googleplex somewhere. Then use that data to fit an enormous model that can predict when you’ve taken a picture of a cat. As users generate more data, bring that data back to the Googleplex and update/refine the model.
  • Apple way - Build a “starter model” in the Apple Mothership. As users generate data on their phones, bring the model to the phone and update the model using just their data. Bring the updated model back to the Apple Mothership and leave the user’s data on the phone.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand this difference is with the arithmetic mean, which is perhaps the simplest “model”. Suppose you have a bunch of users out there and you want to compute the average of some attribute that they have on their phones (or whatever device). The first approach would be to get all that data and compute the mean in the usual way.

Google way

Once all the data is in the Googleplex, we can just use the formula

Google mean

I’ll call this the “Google mean” because it requires that you get all the data X1 through Xn, then sum them up and divide by n. Here, each of the Xi’s represents the ith user’s data. The general principle here is to gather all the data and then estimate the model parameters server-side.

What if you didn’t want to gather everyone’s data centrally? Can you still compute the mean?

Apple way

Yes, because there’s a nice recurrence formula for the mean:

Apple mean

We can call this the “Apple mean”. With this strategy, we can send our current estimate of the mean to each user, update our estimate by taking the weighted average of the old value and the new value, and then move on to the next user. Here, you send the model parameters out to the users, update those parameters and then bring the parameters back.

Which method is better? Well, in this case, both give you the same answer. In general, for linear models (like the mean), you can usually rework the formulas to build out either “whole data” (Google) approaches or “streaming” (Apple) approaches and get pretty much the same answer. But for non-linear models, it’s not so simple and you usually cannot achieve this kind of equivalence.

Clients and Servers

Balancing how much work is done on a server and how much is done on the client is an age-old computing problem and, over time, the balance of work between client and server seems to shift back and forth like a pendulum. When I was in grad school, we had so-called “dumb terminals” that were basically a screen that you used to login to the server. Today, I use my laptop for computing/work and that’s it. But I use the cloud for many other tasks.

The Apple approach definitely requires a “fatter” client because the work of integrating current model parameters with new user data has to happen on the phone. With the Google approach, all the phone has to do is be able to collect the data and send it over the network to Google.

The Apple approach is also closely related to what my colleagues Martin Lindquist and Brian Caffo refer to as “fusion science”, whereby Big Data and “Small Data” can be fused together via models to improve inference, but without ever having to actually combine the data. In a Bayesian context, you might think of the Big Data as making up the prior distribution and the Small Data as the likelihood. The Small Data can be used to update the model parameters and produce the posterior distribution, after which the Small Data can be thrown out.

And the Winner is…

It’s not clear to me which approach is better in terms of building a better model for prediction or inference. Sadly, we may never have enough details to find out, and will only be ablle to evaluate which approach is better by the performance of the systems in the marketplace. But perhaps that’s the way things should be evaluated in this case?

Good list of good books

The MultiThreaded blog over at Stitch Fix (hat tip to Hilary Parker) has posted a really nice list of data science books (disclosure: one of my books is on the list).

We’ve queried our data science team for some of their favorite data science books. This list is by no means exhaustive, but should keep any data scientist/engineer new or old learning and entertained for many an evening.


Not So Standard Deviations Episode 17 - Diurnal High Variance

Hilary and I talk about Amazon Echo and Alexa as AI as a service, the COMPAS algorithm, criminal justice forecasts, and whether algorithms can introduce or remove bias (or both).

If you have questions you’d like us to answer, you can send them to nssdeviations @ gmail.com or tweet us at @NSSDeviations.

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