How the Use of A.I. in the Road-based Logistics and Transportation Can Be Smooth and Congruent with the Current Status Quo
People talk a lot these days about how self-driving cars will solve all of our logistics and transportation related problems when they finally hit the roads. The thing is that the problems they are trying to solve are not as simple, nor is their adoption going to be as easy as these idealistic people think. Although there is nothing wrong with dreaming of a better future, free of traffic and avoidable accidents, it’s also important to look at this matter from a more realistic point of view.
First of all, the self-driving car needs to be re-examined. The idea of a car completely autonomous is a long ways from manifestation, even if there are A.I. systems out there that can navigate a car effectively over large distances. However, considering that these A.I. drivers will become the norm in the foreseeable future is quite unrealistic. The reason is simple economics. These systems are going to be very expensive, so they will naturally appeal only to a small part of the population. Also, as they gradually become more affordable, they will push down the price of conventional vehicles, making the latter more appealing. This is dynamic systems 101, something that apparently many of these visionaries of the self-driving cars are not that familiar with, just like they don’t understand people that well. If Joe and Jane find that this new self-driving car costs 50% more than the car they’ve been dreaming of for the past 5 years, because that particular make of car has been around forever and that model has been heavily advertised ever since they can remember, they will probably go with the conventional car, even if the self-driving car is an objectively better choice in general.
However, if A.I. systems in cars were to adopt an auxiliary role, much like Elon Musk envisions for his Tesla vehicles, then they have a chance. After all, not many people are willing to give up control of their cars just yet. This is evident when you talk with competent drivers who have been outside the US. These people take a strong interest in the stick-shift cars, since it gives them more control over the car, making them feel better about their role as drivers. Also, stick-shift cars are more economical, require less maintenance in terms of the transmission (e.g. no transmission fluids), and are generally quite reliable (as much as their automatic counterparts). Unless of course you never learn how to use the clutch, which is another matter!
If self-driving cars are self-driving only at certain times when the driver chooses to (e.g. in the case of a long road trip, or a mundane commute over I-90), then they can definitely add value. However, if they are entirely self-sufficient with no potential input from the human in the driver’s seat, then they are less likely to gain people’s trust, apart from those prejudiced towards their inherent value. Whatever the case, it is interesting to see how this new trend will evolve and what kind of data it will bring about for data science professionals to analyze!
Sometime in October, one of the Foxy Data Science readers contacted me with a question/suggestion about this topic. As I hadn’t really thought about it much, I decided to look into it and write a blog post about it. I’m not an expert in AEI, but I believe I know enough about A.I. in general and about the business world to venture an insightful view on the matter. At the very least, it can trigger some interesting contemplation in you.
Artificial Emotional Intelligence is a kind of A.I. that emulates the EQ aspects of our mental process. In other words, it is machines that know (to some fairly limited extent) how to exhibit qualities that fall on the intersect between intelligence and emotional maturity, aka EQ. By the way, I do not believe that EQ is more important than IQ, nor that it is any less important. Both are equally useful and neither can be a substitute for SQ (moral intelligence), which is a truly superior kind of intelligence. This, however, could be the topic of another blog post…
Considering the possibility of computers and machines in general, emulating empathy and other traits that are under the EQ umbrella seems a bit futuristic. However, there are already A.I. systems that do just that. Not only that, some of them are quite successful, particularly in psychology roles, even more so than their human counterparts (link to some interesting research by USC).
Could this be the end of EQ-based professions? Probably not, though these people may start considering offering something more than just listening and nodding, if they are to stand out from their AEI competition. Naturally, psychology is so much more than helping someone vent about their issues and showing them that there are more constructive ways to dealing with their problems, something that AEIs may be able to do equally well. That’s why this whole AEI business may be an incentive for these professionals to expand their profession and turn their sessions into something more, something AEIs may not be able to mimic (for the time being). Art therapists, for example, seem to do just that, combining the benefits of conventional psychology with that of an art form (usually music, painting, or dance).
AEIs may be nothing more than a novelty now, but it very poignantly points to the possibility of new forms of A.I. that the original pioneers of the field may not have thought of. Movies like “Her” may be science fiction but for how long? These are interesting things to think about, since A.I. just like natural intelligence, can take many forms, not just the ones that we are more inclined to investigate so far. Surely Deep Learning may still be the most relevant A.I. for data science, but it doesn’t hurt to consider other ways that a machine can benefit the world through A.I. After all, there is much more to life than predicting a hand-written digit with high accuracy. Maybe in the years to come there will be AIs that can look at your handwriting and not only understand it, but also figure out if you are going through a difficult time in your life and require solace and comfort. We definitely live in interesting times!
People like to argue, especially about things they can reason with. However, just because you can justify that your view has merit, giving some practical examples or through logical reasoning, this doesn't make alternative views invalid. If there are several programming languages in data science, perhaps an oversimplification like “X is the best language for data science because Y” doesn't hold much water. Let’s examine why.
Although it is possible to rule out certain languages (e.g. Assembly or C) as optimal for data science, this doesn't mean that the problem has a clear-cut solution. Also, the assumption that a single programming language can cover all the use cases of a data science professional is a quite unjustifiable one. Some data scientists use two or three programming languages, sometimes in combination, getting the best of each, for optimal overall performance.
Also, data science is all about solving a business problem in a scientific manner. Just because say Dr. Smith prefers to use language X over Y, it doesn't mean that you have to follow her example. Maybe she has used language X during her PhD and didn't have time to learn another language, or she attained mastery of that language, so she feels more comfortable doing her data science work with that. She may be a successful data scientist but following her programming habits won’t make you a great data scientist necessarily.
Moreover, with new languages and new packages in the existing languages coming about all the time, which language is best is like the best performing basketball team. Definitely not something particularly stable! Besides, it’s often the case that a particular project may requite special handling, so what is a top-performer now, may not be the best option for that particular case.
In addition, the almost religious attitude towards programming languages that many people have (not just data scientists) is by itself problematic. If a potential employer sees you arguing about how your language of choice is the best and that you are not open to consider alternatives, he may not be so eager to hire you, since this kind of attitude creates disharmony and difficulty in collaboration among the members of a team. Besides, in most companies nowadays, they rarely ask for a specific language in the candidate requirements. As long as you can do the task that’s required of you, they don’t really care much what your programming background is. Of course companies that have already invested in a particular language and have all their code in that language may not be so flexible, but that shouldn't be the principle factor in your decision about which language you learn.
Finally, when it comes to deep learning, many modern frameworks, like Apache’s MXNet, have APIs for a variety of programming language. So if your A.I. guru friend tries to convince you that you should learn language X because that’s the best deep learning language, take that suggestion with a pinch of salt!
The important thing is for whatever language you decide to learn for data science, you make sure that you learn it well. Familiarize yourself with its packages, use it to solve various problems, and learn the best strategies for debugging code written in that language. If you do that, you can still make good use of it for your data science projects, even if the majority of people prefer this or the other language instead.
That’s a question that many people ask themselves and professionals in the data analytics field. However, they get different answers depending on who they ask. Naturally, the A.I. professional will tell you that of course, since A.I. methods are much better than conventional machine learning ones, while the field is booming lately. The data scientist may have a more retrained approach, as she is more likely to look at the matter scientifically, expressing some cautiousness about how influential A.I. professionals will be in the data science field. As someone who is both in A.I. and Data Science, perhaps I could offer a more balanced perspective.
First of all, an A.I. professional is a specialist in A.I. methods and if we are thinking about how this person can do a data scientist’s job, we are looking at someone who focuses on data analytics, rather than some other part of A.I. (e.g. robotics, theoretical A.I., etc.). Also, when we are examining a data science professional, we are looking at someone who is not in A.I. and who uses mostly conventional data science methods for the data analytics problems he tackles.
In my latest book, I outlined the importance of A.I. and how it is very influential in the data science field and the role of the data scientist. I even encouraged people to be kept up-to-date about the developments of A.I. as I predicted it will have an important role to play in the years to come. However, I did not urge anyone to drop what they are doing and focus on A.I. methods alone. If someone is already in the field, that’s great, since they already have developed the mindset of the data scientist and have mastered some of the tools, so by studying A.I. methods for data analytics, they are expanding their skill-set. That’s different from becoming A.I. specialists though. The A.I. specialists may be great at tackling Kaggle competitions, where the data is in a pretty clean and structured form (or at least mostly structured). However, this doesn't automatically make them adept at handling all kinds of data, like a data scientist does.
It’s really hard to make predictions about things involving people and their work, as the market is a chaoit system. However, I can attempt to venture an educated guess about what is most likely to happen, if things continue evolving the way they do. So, as A.I. becomes more and more versatile and more robust in tackling data analytics problems, it is bound to dominate over other data science techniques. So, if you are happy using SVMs or random forests, for example, you may want to rethink your toolkit! Yet, it is unlikely that A.I. will fully automate the data science process, much like statistics have not become fully obsolete just because there are several statistical programming environments out there (e.g. Statistica, R, SAS, etc.). Statistics is and is bound to remain useful because it is much more than its techniques. The same goes for data science. Even if all the conventional methods used by a data scientist become obsolete, giving way to A.I. ones, people will continue asking questions about the data, forming hypotheses, analyzing problems so that they can be modeled as data science ones, etc.
Of course, people will still communicate with the stakeholders of the projects, create visuals, do presentations, etc. So, even if the A.I. professional is bound to be an asset to an organization, he is most likely going to be part of a data science team, working side-by-side with a data scientist. As for the latter, she will be more knowledgeable about A.I. methods and will spend more time on other parts of her job, rather than doing feature selecting and building a series of models, since that’s something that will be automated by an A.I. system.
Therefore, unless a major breakthrough happens in the next few years, I’d recommend you are a bit skeptical about the A.I. paradigm shift that many evangelists talk about, as if it’s the coming of a new Messiah. It would be nice if everything was suddenly easy and smooth, due to A.I., but I wouldn’t uninstall my data science software just yet...
With all the hype about A.I. lately, many people have jumped on the A.I. bandwagon without realizing that what they are producing is not always related to A.I. and that their false promises can only get them that far. That’s not to say that modern processes in data science that leverage alternative approaches to analyzing data without relying on a predefined data representation system are not A.I. Far from it. However, there is a lot of jazz about knowledge representation systems (KRS), such as those applied in Natural Language Processing (NLP) that are merely transformations of text data into a quantitative format. Calling that an A.I. is calling a sedan a 4-by-4 monster truck!
Knowledge representation is useful in many ways as it is an often necessary component to Natural Language Understanding (NLU) and other NLP-related systems. For example, the NLTK package in Python has a process in place that categorizes a given text into a series of parts of speech (PoS), by labeling each word with the most appropriate PoS tag. That’s useful, but it’s not exactly A.I. technology. Similar frameworks providing some kind of labeling of text data fall under the same umbrella. In fact, without someone processing their output and building some kind of model based on it, such a labeling is utterly useless. It’s like the dough someone makes, which without additional processing (e.g. baking), it’s bound to be something you’d probably not serve in a dinner party as-is (though many kids may be quite content eating it in this form).
People managing data-driven products, however, are not kids. They expect some kind of value from the processing of the text-based data streams (which sometimes come at a cost) and a positive ROI. It’s quite unlikely that serving them some half-baked data using a knowledge representation system on the given data is going to make them content. Maybe they are fooled once into believing that this is A.I. at work, but it’s probably going to be a one-time thing. This is especially true if they have some data scientist on-board, who knows a thing or two about text analytics.
A.I. systems are automated processes that make an in-depth transformation of the data they are fed, yielding something of value at the end. They usually require a lot of sophisticated processes in the back-end, such as the generation of a large number of meta-features, gradually refining the original features into something that encapsulates the information in them, and then use the end-result to make predictions of some kind. When it comes to data, this could be some new text that mimics the style of the original text, or some better representation of the data using a compact feature set. All this is done through computationally heavy processes that often employ the usage of GPUs. So, saying that a knowledge representation system that can run on an average computer, without any additional computing power, is an A.I. system, is inaccurate and misleading. Best case scenario, its results will be later discovered to be interesting but practically useless. After all, A.I. systems are robust because they drill into the data in ways that no human can do, and usually not even comprehend fully.
So, if you hear someone claim that they have developed some new A.I. system that can handle raw text data, without the use of some non-parametric model, they are probably trying to sell you snake oil. This is expected in times where new technologies are available yet not fully understood, and charlatans trying to take advantage of the fact are promoting products convoluted enough to masquarade as this new tech, without actually offering any real value to the user. The answer to this situation is to better understand the field through methodical study (it doesn’t have to be too time-consuming) through reliable sources and the consultation of A.I. professionals and data scientist with an NLP focus. Once you are armed with this understanding, no KRS charlatans can take advantage of you since you’ll be able to see through their lies.
Lately I've been thinking about A.I. and Statistics a lot (you could say that the amount of time spent thinking about these topics is significantly higher at alpha = 0.05!). This is partly because my Stats article managed to get more traction than any other article I've written in the past few months, and partly because A.I. is becoming more and more relevant in our field. So, the question of whether A.I. is one day going to replace Stats altogether remains a very relevant one.
The key advantage of A.I. methods is that they are assumption-free. This by itself enables them to tackle the problems they are aiming to solve, in a very methodical and efficient way. Of course, certain assumptions might speed things up, but they might obstruct the discovery of the optimal solutions to the problem at hand. Statistical inference models lost the war against machine learning models because of that, especially when artificial neural networks (ANNs) entered the scene. Also, the fact that many ML models could be combined in an ensemble setting allowed them to become even more robust, attaining F1 scores that were unfathomable for statistical prediction models. So, the possibility of other methods of statistics becoming outsourced to alternative systems is quite real.
On the other hand, statistics are very easy to use and interpret, since most of them were designed from a user’s perspective. There are doctors out there (the medical kind), who don’t know much about data analytics but can easily work a statistical model for figuring out if a certain drug has a positive influence on certain patients, and derive some scientific conclusions based on that. That doctor may not be able to write a script to save his life, but he can make use of the data he gathers and advance his scientific field, using just statistics. It’s quite unlikely that this kind of person, who is usually too busy or just not technically adept enough, will take up an A.I. approach to this kind of analysis any time soon.
Of course, A.I. constantly evolves so the black-box issue that makes many ANN-based systems unfavorable, may wane in the future. Already there are A.I. professionals talking about A.I. systems that offer some kind of interpretability. So, even if statistical systems are easier to understand and communicate, it could be that A.I. hasn't said its final word yet.
Whatever the case, I prefer to remain agnostic on this matter. Just like with programming, it’s best to keep one’s options open, when it comes to data science. I’m not a fan of statistics (and never was), but I see value in them and I’m happy to use them to the extent that they offer value to the projects I work on. A.I. may be more of a novel and exciting framework, but if an A.I. system is hard to communicate to the client, or doesn't lend itself to interpretation, then I may not use it everywhere. Just like you don’t take your fancy fringe science book to the beach, you don’t need to show off your A.I. know-how at every opportunity. Perhaps the humble historic novel is more suitable for reading while sunbathing, just like the humble statistics are fine for describing if sample A is significantly different from sample B.
When people nowadays talk about A.I., they usually refer to the deep learning methodology and other ANN frameworks. This is great, considering that ANNs were almost considered a dead-end once, due to the inability of technology to help them exhibit their potential. Yet, now computers are more powerful than ever and GPUs are commonplace as add-ons, enabling deep learning and other ANN-based system to function at greater scales. However, there are some other A.I. methodologies that are equally valid and actually predate ANNs. These I refer to as the “hipsters of A.I.” since they were part of the A.I. field before A.I. was cool.
The A.I. hipster methodologies are A.I. frameworks that are not ANN-related. These are systems like Fuzzy Logic (FL), which came about years before ANNs reached a level of development that made them worth using in machine learning. FL systems were used heavily in data analytics, while they were even implemented in hardware. At one point, researchers even experimented with a hybrid system that is part FL and part ANN (this was called ANFIS and was in essence an Artificial Neural network that optimized the membership functions of a Fuzzy Inference System).
Another hipster methodology is the family of optimization methods. These are systems like Genetic Algorithms, Simulated Annealing, and Particle Swarm Optimization (as well as its many variants). Although the scope of these A.I. fields is limited to finding optima of particular functions (aka fitness functions), their usefulness covers a variety of fields. Even dimensionality reduction processes sometimes make use of GAs or some other optimization tool. Note that these system are not the same as the analytical optimization methods known from Calculus, since they tackle very complex search spaces, with oftentimes dozens of variables, and use a stochastic process in the back-end.
If there is one take-away from these hipster A.I. systems it is that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to artificial intelligence. That’s not to say that deep learning systems are not worth your while, but it’s good to keep an open mind about other A.I. systems that may not be as popular today, but may have played (and still play) an important role in the evolution of the field.
Also, having a solid understanding of A.I. through its various methodologies, allows us to be able to think forward in a creative way. Instead of merely trying to extend the methodologies we know, we may come up with new ones, enriching A.I. in ways that we wouldn't be able to fathom if our understanding were limited to a single A.I. framework. Isn't that what A.I. is about, finding novel ways to solve problems, leveraging clever heuristics and imaginative architectures?
Recently, the tech news bubble featured a very interesting phenomenon that had caught Facebook’s A.I. experts by surprise. Namely, two AIs that were developed by the company’s AI team were found to communicate in unexpected ways between themselves, during the testing phase of the project. Although they were using what would qualify as “bad English,” the people monitoring these communications were unable to understand what information was conveyed and they argued that these AIs may have invented their own language!
Although this claim would require a considerable amount of data before it is proven or disproven, the possibility of these young AIs having overstepped their boundaries is quite real. Perhaps this is not something to lose sleep over, since it’s hardly a catastrophic event, it may still be a good proxy of a situation that no-one would like to experience, that of AIs getting out of control. Because, if they can communicate independently now, who knows what they could do in the future, if they are treated with the same recklessness that FB has demonstrated? The outcomes of this may not be as obvious as those being portrayed in sci-fi films. On the contrary, they are bound to be very subtle, so much so that they would be very hard to detect, at least at first. Some would classify them as system bugs, but these would not be the kind of bugs that would cause a system failure and make some coders to want to smash their computer screen. These bugs would linger in the code until they manifest in some unforeseen (and possibly unforeseeable) imbalance. Best case scenario, they could cause the users of the popular social medium to get frustrated or even complain about the new system. I don’t want to think about what the worst case scenario would be...
Of course the A.I. fanboys are bound to disregard this matter as a fluke or an unfortunate novelty that people turn into an issue when it isn’t. They would argue that small hick-ups like this one are inevitable and that we should just power through. Although there is something admirable about the optimism of these people, the thing is that this is a highly complex matter that technology experts like Elon Musk and Bill Gates have repeatedly warned us about. This is not like a problem with a car that may cause a simple road accident, if left unattended. This is the equivalent of a problem with the control tower of an airport that could cause lots of planes to crash all over the place. Fortunately, there are contingencies that prevent such catastrophes when it comes to airports, but can we say the same about the A.I. field?
There are different ways to respond to this kind of situation and I’m not saying that we should panic or start fearing A.I. That wouldn't help much, if at all. A more prudent response would be to see this as a learning experience and an opportunity to implement fail-safes that will keep this sort of A.I. behavior under wraps. After all, I doubt that the absence of helpful AIs in FB or any other social medium are going to drive people away from social networks, while the presence of an unpredictable AI probably would...
Why the Role of A.I. in the Job Market Is Very Much a Business Decision Technical Professionals Can Contribute to
Lately there is a lot of talk about AIs potentially taking people’s jobs in the future and how this is either catastrophic, or some kind of utopia (or, less often, some other stance in between). Although we as data science and A.I. professionals have little to do with the high-level decisions that have some influence on this future, perhaps we are not so detached from the reality of the situation. I’m not talking about the A.I. choir that is happy to recite its fantasies about an A.I.-based future that is akin to the sci-fi films that monetize this idea. I’m talking about grounded professionals who have some experience in the development of A.I. systems, be it for data science or other fields of application.
The problem with business decisions is that they are by their nature related to quite complex problems. As such, it is practically impossible to solve them in a clear-cut manner that doesn't invite reactions, or at least some debate. That’s why those individuals who have the courage to make these decisions are paid so handsomely. It’s not the time they put in, but the responsibility they undertake, that makes their role of value. However, it is important to make these decision as future-proof as possible, something that these individuals may not be able to do on their own. That’s why they have advisors and consultants, after all. Besides, even if some of the decision-makers are technical and can understand the A.I. matters, they may lack the granularity of comprehension that an A.I. professional has.
People who make business decisions often see A.I. as a valuable resource that can help their organization in many ways (particularly cut down on some costs, via automation or increased efficiency in time-consuming or expensive processes). However, they may not always see the implications of these moves and the shortcomings of this, still not yet mature, technology. A.I. systems are not objective, nor immune to errors. After all, most of them are black boxes, so whatever processes they have in place for their outputs are usually beyond our reach, and oftentimes beyond our comprehension. Just like it is impossible to be sure what processes drive our decisions based on our brain patterns, it is perhaps equally challenging to pinpoint how exactly the decisions of an A.I. are forged. That’s something that is probably not properly communicated to the decision makers on A.I. matters, along with the fact that AIs cannot undertake responsibility for these decisions, no matter how sophisticated these marvels of computing are.
Perhaps some more education and investigation into the nature of A.I. and its limitations is essential for everyone who has a say in this matter. It would be irresponsible to expect one set of people to navigate through this on their own and then blame them if their decisions are not good enough or able to withstand the test of time. This is a matter that concerns us all and as such we all need to think about it and find ways to contribute to the corresponding decisions. A.I. can be a great technology and integrate well in the job market, if we approach it responsibly and with views based on facts rather than wishful thinking.
A.I. is great, especially when applied to data science. Many people lately are quite concerned about the various dangers it may entail. This naturally polarizes people, splitting views of the topic into two main groups: the ones neglecting these concerns and those mirroring a fear that the end of the world is upon us. Probably the truth lies somewhere in-between, but given the lack of evidence, any speculation on the matter may be premature and likely to be inaccurate.
In this post I’d like to focus on another danger that many people don’t think much about, or don’t see it as a danger at all: the sense of complacency that may arise from a super-automated world. Of course, complacency is a human condition and has little to do with A.I. but someone may consider that it is A.I. to blame for this condition. After all, super-automation may be possible only through this new technology becoming wide-spread.
This danger, which can find its way to data science too if left unchecked, is a real one. However, it is neither singular nor catastrophic. After all, every large-scale technological innovation has brought about social changes that have triggered this condition to some extent. This does not mean that we should go back to the stone age, however. After all, technology is largely neutral and the people who make it available to the world have the best intentions in mind. So, it seems that blaming a new tech for this matter may be a bit irresponsible.
Yet, the advent of technology can be a good thing if dealt with in a mature manner. Just like you can own a car and still make time for physical exercise, you can have access to an A.I. and still be a creative and productive person. It’s all a matter of power, at the end of the day. If we give away our power, our ability to choose and to shape our lives, then we are left powerless victims of whoever has taken hold of that power. In the case of A.I., if we cherish automation so much that we outsource every task to it, then we are willingly creating our own peril. So, if we choose to maintain a presence in all processes where A.I. is involved, the latter is not going to be a threat, not a considerable one anyway.
There is no doubt that A.I. can be dangerous, much like every other technological advancement. However, it seems that the crux of the problem lies within us, rather than at the machines that incarnate this technology. If we give into a sense of complacency and allow the AIs to have a gradually more active part in our society, then maybe this tech will create more problems than the ones it’ll solve. However, if we deal with this new technological advent maturely, we can still benefit from it, without making ourselves obsolete or irrelevant, in the process.
Zacharias Voulgaris, PhD
Passionate data scientist with a foxy flair when it comes to technology, technique, and tests.