Just like week, during a business trip to London, I started working on this video, on my spare time, and now it's already online! In this 40 minute video, comprising of 3 clips, I explore the topic of Optimization, through a series of questions spanning across 5 categories. Whether you are an aspiring A.I. expert or a data scientist, you can learn a lot of useful things from this test of sorts and with the right mindset, even enjoy the whole process! You can find it on the O'Reilly platform, where you need to have an account (even a trial one will do) to watch it in its entirety. Cheers!
With everyone in A.I. feeling the need to have an opinion or even a stance on Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), we often neglect the source of this concept. Namely, the well-rounded intelligence that characterizes a human being, having all kinds of smarts. The latter I refer to as Natural General Intelligence (NGI) and someone can argue that it's as important if not more important than AGI, at least in this point in time, particularly to data science professionals.
But isn’t this kind of intelligence another name for genius? Not necessarily. NGI is modeled after the human being in general even if its artificial counterpart (AGI) is often linked to super-intelligence, a kind of supergenius that may characterize an A.I. that has developed this level of intelligence. Still, it is possible to have NGI without being a modern Leonardo DaVinci or a Benjamin Franklin.
Natural General Intelligence is all about enabling your mind to develop in different aspects, not merely the ones that you need for your vocation or the ones that were essential for your survival so far. This idea is not new and has been popular during the Renaissance. Even today we use the term "Renaissance Man" to refer to the individual who is well-rounded in his or her life and can be good at different things. In this era of overspecialization, this seems to be a Utopian endeavor, at least to some people. In reality, however, it isn't. If you want to learn a musical instrument, for example, there are plenty of courses and books you can leverage, while there are even music instructors who can teach you over the internet. As for the instruments themselves, they are far more affordable than they used to be while for certain instruments, the prices continue to drop due to high demand. However, more important than developing one’s musical aptitude is the growth of one’s emotional intelligence (EQ), particularly interpersonal skills.
What does all this have to do with data science? Well, in data science it’s easy to overspecialize too (e.g. in Machine Learning, Data Engineering, NLP, etc.). However, this creates artificial barriers which may render communication with other data professionals more challenging. Of course, more often than not these issues are alleviated through a competent data science lead or a manager with sufficient data science understanding. Still, if you as a data science professional can mitigate the need for external intervention when it comes to collaborating with others, that’s definitely a plus. Not just in terms of smoothing the professional relationships involved, but also in terms of business value. Stand-alone professionals are very sought after since such people tend to be (or quickly become) assets. In time, these professionals can grow into versatilists and/or assume leadership positions.
From all this, it is hopefully clear that Natural General Intelligence is more tangible and significantly more feasible than any other kind of advanced intelligence capable of yielding value in an organization. What's more, an individual with NGI is bound to be more relate-able and accountable, rendering the whole team he/she belongs to a more functional unit. Perhaps such a goal is more beneficial than the blind pursuit of some exotic kind of A.I. that can solve all of our problems. The latter is intriguing and worth investigating, but I wouldn't bet on it benefiting the average Joe any time soon!
Being an expert in this topic since my PhD, I decided to create a video about it. The topic is a bit niche but it's very practical and useful in various data science tasks, particularly data engineering. Check out the video on O'Reilly and feel free to give me any feedback on it, especially regarding the I.D. metric once you look into it. Note that you will need an account on the O'Reilly platform in order to view the video (and any other material) in its entirety. However, considering the quality of the stuff there and the diversity of the content, it is a worthwhile investment. Also, you can have a free trial for 10 days to check it out, before you make a decision about it. Cheers!
The knowledge vs. faith conundrum has been a philosophical debate for eons, yet it usually is geared towards abstract matters, such as life after death. So, how does this apply to a pragmatic field such as data science? Well, contrary to what many people think, most data science practitioners often rely on faith to a great extent, when dealing with data science matters. But why is that?
Unfortunately, most people learning the craft have a strict time table to keep, so they don't have a chance to go in depth on the material covered. This increasingly severe temporal limitation is also coupled with other factors, such as the plethora of "cookbooks" on the topic. Not to be confused with actual cookbooks, comprising of various recipes, oftentimes original tried and tested dishes developed by experienced chefs; these cookbooks are fine and probably have a bigger bang for your buck, compared to the technical cookbooks that are basically a bunch of methods and functions, usually in a popular programming language, organized by someone who oftentimes doesn't even understand them. If you rely mainly on such sources of knowledge, you are basically putting your faith in these people and creating gaps in your understanding of the craft.
So, if you obtain technical knowledge quickly or from a source that doesn't go much in depth, it is unlikely to truly know data science. That's not to say that you shouldn't read books; far from it. Books are useful but no matter how good they are, the best way to learn something remains the empirical approach. Going under the hood of the methods involved, implementing methods from scratch and even experimenting with your own ideas, are all good ways to learn something in more depth and remember it for longer periods of time. Also, through empirical knowledge of the craft, you are more confident about what you know and oftentimes more aware of the boundaries of your knowledge.
There is room for faith in our field, as for example when you trust what your data science lead/director tells you, when you accept advice from a mentor, and when you rely on the know-how of an academic paper written by someone who knows data science in-depth. However, it's good to balance it with empirical knowledge to the extent your time allows. Perhaps in abstract matters, it's hard to obtain empirical knowledge, but on things that you can test yourself, the only limitations are man-made ones. Are you willing to transcend them?
There are many mistakes that can be made in data science, many of which can go unnoticed for a while. The reason is that unlike coding bugs, these mistakes don't throw an error or an exception, making them harder to spot and fix, as a result. In my view, the biggest such mistake is that of thinking that one aspect of data science is so significantly better than the others that the latter don't matter much. I used to think like that back in PhD days (my thesis was on Machine Learning and heuristics) but fortunately, I discovered the error of my thinking and started broadening my perspective on this matter, something I continue to do as I learn more about this fascinating field.
Let's look into this more closely. For starters, there are several frameworks or tool-kits available in data science today, ranging from Statistics to Machine Learning, and lately, A.I. based models. All of them have their own set of advantages as well as limitations. Many Machine Learning models, for example, particularly A.I. based ones (mainly ANNs) are very hard to interpret and are often referred to as black boxes. Stats models, on the other hand, may be easy to interpret, but they may not be as accurate, while they tend to have a number of assumptions which may not always hold true. That's why claiming that one of these frameworks or tool-kits is the best one at the expense of others is a very shaky position.
However, with all the hype around the latest and greatest Deep Learning methods (and other A.I. based models used in Data Science), it's difficult to argue against this position. Also, with Statistics having such a good reputation in academia and proven applicability across different domains, it's also hard to argue that it's not as good a framework. This may be good in a way since it keeps us humble, but it may also obstruct progress. How can you have the nerve to put forward something new if it doesn't comply with what is considered "the best" or if it doesn't comply with the traditional approaches to data learning, such as Statistical Learning?
I'm not claiming to have a solution to this conundrum, by the way, and perhaps it's not something that can be answered simply. However, this kind of riddles that plague the data science field are what can be good food for thought and bring about a sense of genuine wonder about the prospects and the future of data science. Maybe when someone asks us what the best framework of data science is it's better to say "I don't know" and consider using different ones in tandem, instead of flocking into this or the other group of people who have made up their minds about this, and who are unlikely to ever change it. After all, open-mindedness is something that never gets old, at least not in a truly scientific field.
Being open-minded is a key trait of any scientist, since the beginning of Science. The scientific method is basically a practice that relies on open-mindedness, focusing on testing a hypothesis based on the evidence at hand. However, nowadays there is a trend towards a heretic behavior (in lack of a better word) when it comes to the science of data, as well as the application of A.I. in it.
Open-mindedness is not just being open about the results of an experiment though. That’s easy. Being open to other people’s ideas and beliefs is also important. It’s easy to dismiss some people, especially those writing about this matter, even though they lack the training you may have on the field. Still, those people may have some interesting insights, which they often express in their articles. You don’t have to agree with them, in order to gain from this, expanding your perspective. However, dismissing an article because it makes use of this or the other term (which in your opinion is not that relevant to the topic they tackle) is closed-minded.
That’s not to say that we should accept everything we read, however. Some of the material out there is of low informational value and can be biased towards this or the other technology, for various reasons. That’s normal since the field of data science (as well as A.I. to some extent) is closely linked to the business world and is influenced by the dynamics of the markets of tools and frameworks related to data analytics.
So, what do we do about all this? For starters, we can read an article before we dismiss it as irrelevant or otherwise problematic. Also, if we don’t agree about something with the author, we can construct arguments against that point and express them without attacking the other person. There are people who are incredibly toxic to the field and pose a threat to the field, by propagating their erroneous beliefs, but fortunately, these are few. Also, they are probably beyond salvation, since they have too large a following to ever question their beliefs. Still, by going against their propaganda, we can still help the people who haven’t made up their minds yet on the topic.
Perhaps that’s why the most important thing you can learn about data science and A.I. is to have a mindset that is congruent to your development as a professional, always maintaining an open mind. Just because there are fanatics in this field who are getting paid way more than they should and maintain a large following due to their charisma, it doesn’t mean that this is the best way to go. It’s not easy to be open-minded in a place where fanaticism thrives, but in the long run, it’s a viable strategy. After all, data science is here to stay, in one form or another, while the views on it that are now popular are bound to change.
As experience and knowledge accumulate in our minds, it’s increasingly easy to lose touch of that original spark that brought us into this journey of learning, in the fascinating field of data science. I’m referring to that sense of wonder that made all this otherwise dry know-how of math, programming, and data, something we could lose sleep over. Because if you are really in a state of wonder, it’s easy to forget to eat, postpone other tasks, and even find sleep somewhat less important, when your other option is delving more into the learning of the craft.
A sense of wonder, however, is much more than curiosity or even interest in data science. It is all that, but it’s also a way of feeling, a higher sentiment if you will. Being at wonder is what incites wondering and going into more depth. It is what makes a seemingly mundane task, such as data cleaning, appear intriguing and valuable. It is what makes learning about a new model something truly interesting, not just as a memory-based activity, but also as something that sparks imagination and innovation. It is wonder that makes us ask “what if?” instead of just being content with what is presented to us.
Naturally, this sense of wonder is fleeting, just like the perspective we have as newcomers to data science. The more we learn, the more limited our wanderings in the vast knowledge that the field entails, since being more focused on specific tasks and time frames are of the essence. That’s normal since as data scientists we need to be practical and akin to the way the world works, otherwise, we’d be unemployable. Yet, at a certain point of aptitude and understanding of the craft, it is this sense of wonder that enables us to go further and grow beyond what we are expected to be.
The sense of wonder can be cultivated through a sincere wish to become better for the sake of being better, a wish nourished by our love for data science. Ambition can only take us so far, plus after a while, it can become stressful. Wanting to become better because of a lasting motivation is therefore essential for bringing about the sense of wonder. However, we also need to make time for it and allocate resources to such endeavors. Learning through a book or a crash course may be efficient but it’s what we do beyond this that enables us to learn deeply and cultivate the sense of wonder. Liaising with people who already have this sense strong in them, such as beginners who are dedicated learners of the craft, can be a great aid too. Finally, we need to think about the craft and experiment with new ideas. If we just rely on what this or the other expert says, we are bound to be limited by them. We need to study existing ideas, but also dare to venture beyond them, exploring new models and new metrics. Most of them are bound to yield nowhere but some of them are bound to work and help us look at data science from a different angle.
Cultivating a sense of wonder isn’t easy and it’s an ongoing challenge. However, through it, new perspectives come about (such as some of the stuff I talk about in this blog periodically) while the connectedness of the various aspects of the field becomes apparent. All in all, it’s this perspective that makes the field truly wonderful, much more than a line of work. That’s something to wonder about...
In the previous article, I talked about the dichotomy of Student – Mentee in a data science context. However, it’s really the dichotomy of teacher – Mentor that is at the root of all this, while the data science field itself has a role to play too, something many learners of the craft have forgotten. In this article, we’ll explore just that, in an attempt to gain a better perspective of how true learning works and what it takes to connect to the essence of this fascinating field that’s being tainted by the ones who see it as merely a career-boosting opportunity.
Although there is nothing wrong with the role of a professor in any field, especially the fields of science, it’s important to highlight a distinct difference between a professor and a mentor. The former is usually geared towards giving a set of lectures, in order to fulfill the requirements of his/her professional position, something that may or may not be adequate for conveying the essence of the field, especially for a field as complex as data science. It’s not that the professor doesn’t care for all this, but the nature of this profession makes it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to do this justice. After all, most of these professional educators have other priorities, such as their research.
Mentors, on the other hand, help others learn about data science, not because it’s our job, but because we care about the field, while we have other sources of income to cover our daily expenses. Of course, we may still have monetary benefits linked to mentoring, but it’s generally not the key motivation of all this. Also, we share knowledge about the field based on our own experience, rather than some curriculum which may not always align with the field. Finally, the connection with the people we help (mentees) is more direct and tailored to their needs, rather than generic and impersonal.
It’s important to note that these two roles although different, may still have an overlap. There are professors who can act as mentors, though they usually do this outside the classroom, as in the case of their supervisory role for a PhD student. Also, someone can be a mentor and yet also work part-time in a university. So, it’s good to maintain a flexible view of this whole matter.
Anyway, if you are willing to learn data science in depth, it’s definitely better to do so through a mentor, particularly one with a diversity of experiences in the field. But what about the mentor himself? Where does he learn about all this? In many cases, a mentor may have another mentor to learn from, though it is also possible that the data science field itself is that person’s mentor. After all, data science is a living field, dynamic and ever-changing, with plenty of things to teach to those who are willing to learn from it. Many of its secrets have been discovered but there is still a lot that it’s uncharted territory. That’s something data science can teach anyone who is willing to learn from it. All it takes is a solid understanding of the fundamentals, a strong sense of discipline, and the open-mindedness to abandon what you know for what you can know if you maintain a beginner’s mind...
I've talked about mentoring in the past and what a good mentee looks like. Here I'd like to highlight the differences between a student and a mentee since it's easy to confuse the two.
First of all, a student is someone who is generally more passive than a mentee. The latter takes initiative and feels responsible for her progress in the field of study. The former often outsources this to the instructor(s) and focuses more on passing exams rather than actually learning.
In addition, a mentee has a closer connection with the person helping him learn, namely the mentor. The student's relationship with his instructors is more impersonal, mainly because the latter have lots of students to deal with and can't usually focus on every single one unless it's for their dissertation project or something. The mentor, however, is more dedicated to getting to know the mentee better and coach him accordingly.
Moreover, the mentee-mentor relationship is beyond academia, even though it can exist in a university too (e.g. in the case of a PhD program). More often than not, mentees and mentors are working professionals, while the former tends to already have a degree.
Furthermore, mentees tend to have a more focused approach to learning, usually related to a specific field, much like an apprentice. The student, on the other hand, may study lots of different fields, as part of her curriculum at the college or university.
Interestingly, although there are several university courses on Data Science these days, most people who learn the craft, tend to do so either independently or through the help of a mentor. Perhaps there is something to this, other than a coincidence. That's not to say that university courses are bad, but oftentimes learning data science as a mentee tends to be more cost-effective and efficient, time-wise.
What are your thoughts and experiences on the matter?
Short answer: Nope! Longer answer: clustering can be a simple deterministic problem, given that you figure out the optimal centroids to start with. But isn’t the latter the solution of a stochastic process though? Again, nope. You can meander around the feature space like a gambler, hoping to find some points that can yield a good solution, or you can tackle the whole problem scientifically. To do that, however, you have to forget everything you know about clustering and even basic statistics, since the latter are inherently limited and frankly, somewhat irrelevant to proper clustering.
Finding the optimal clusters is a two-fold problem: 1. you need to figure out which solutions make sense for the data (i.e. a good value for K), and 2. figure out these solutions in a methodical and robust manner. The former has been resolved as a problem and it’s fairly trivial. Vincent Granville talked about it in his blog, many years ago and since he is better at explaining things than I am, I’m not going to bother with that part at all. My solution to it is a bit different but it’s still heuristics-based. The 2nd part of the problem is also the more challenging one since it’s been something many people have been pursuing a while now, without much success (unless you count the super slow method of DBSCAN, with more parameters than letters in its name, as a viable solution).
To find the optimal centroids, you need to take into account two things, the density of each centroid and the distances of each centroid to the other ones. Then you need to combine the two in a single metric, with you need to maximize. Each one of these problems seems fairly trivial, but something that many people don’t realize is that in practice, it’s very very hard, especially if you have multi-dimensional data (where conventional distance metrics fail) and lots of it (making the density calculations a major pain). Fortunately, I found a solution to both of these problems using 1. a new kind of distance metric, that yields a higher U value (this is the heuristic used to evaluate distance metrics in higher dimensional space), though with an inevitable compromise, and 2. a far more efficient way of calculating densities. The aforementioned compromise is that this metric cannot guarantee that the triangular inequality holds, but then again, this is not something you need for clustering anyway. As long as the clustering algo converges, you are fine.
Preliminary results of this new clustering method show that it’s fairly quick (even though it searches through various values of K to find the optimum one) and computationally light. What’s more, it is designed to be fairly scalable, something that I’ll be experimenting with in the weeks to come. The reason for the scalability is that it doesn’t calculate the density of each data point, but of certain regions of the dataset only. Finding these regions is the hardest part, but you only need to do that once, before you start playing around with K values.
Anyway, I’d love to go into detail about the method but the math I use is different to anything you’ve seen and beyond what is considered canon. Then again, some problems need new math to be solved and perhaps clustering is one of them. Whatever the case, this is just one of the numerous applications of this new framework of data analysis, which I call AAF (alternative analytics framework), a project I’ve been working on for more than 10 years now. More on that in the coming months.
Zacharias Voulgaris, PhD
Passionate data scientist with a foxy approach to technology, particularly related to A.I.