Sep
23
2020
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WhyLabs brings more transparancy to ML ops

WhyLabs, a new machine learning startup that was spun out of the Allen Institute, is coming out of stealth today. Founded by a group of former Amazon machine learning engineers, Alessya Visnjic, Sam Gracie and Andy Dang, together with Madrona Venture Group principal Maria Karaivanova, WhyLabs’ focus is on ML operations after models have been trained — not on building those models from the ground up.

The team also today announced that it has raised a $4 million seed funding round from Madrona Venture Group, Bezos Expeditions, Defy Partners and Ascend VC.

Visnjic, the company’s CEO, used to work on Amazon’s demand forecasting model.

“The team was all research scientists, and I was the only engineer who had kind of tier-one operating experience,” she told me. “So I thought, “Okay, how bad could it be? I carried the pager for the retail website before. But it was one of the first AI deployments that we’d done at Amazon at scale. The pager duty was extra fun because there were no real tools. So when things would go wrong — like we’d order way too many black socks out of the blue — it was a lot of manual effort to figure out why issues were happening.”

Image Credits: WhyLabs

But while large companies like Amazon have built their own internal tools to help their data scientists and AI practitioners operate their AI systems, most enterprises continue to struggle with this — and a lot of AI projects simply fail and never make it into production. “We believe that one of the big reasons that happens is because of the operating process that remains super manual,” Visnjic said. “So at WhyLabs, we’re building the tools to address that — specifically to monitor and track data quality and alert — you can think of it as Datadog for AI applications.”

The team has brought ambitions, but to get started, it is focusing on observability. The team is building — and open-sourcing — a new tool for continuously logging what’s happening in the AI system, using a low-overhead agent. That platform-agnostic system, dubbed WhyLogs, is meant to help practitioners understand the data that moves through the AI/ML pipeline.

For a lot of businesses, Visnjic noted, the amount of data that flows through these systems is so large that it doesn’t make sense for them to keep “lots of big haystacks with possibly some needles in there for some investigation to come in the future.” So what they do instead is just discard all of this. With its data logging solution, WhyLabs aims to give these companies the tools to investigate their data and find issues right at the start of the pipeline.

Image Credits: WhyLabs

According to Karaivanova, the company doesn’t have paying customers yet, but it is working on a number of proofs of concepts. Among those users is Zulily, which is also a design partner for the company. The company is going after mid-size enterprises for the time being, but as Karaivanova noted, to hit the sweet spot for the company, a customer needs to have an established data science team with 10 to 15 ML practitioners. While the team is still figuring out its pricing model, it’ll likely be a volume-based approach, Karaivanova said.

“We love to invest in great founding teams who have built solutions at scale inside cutting-edge companies, who can then bring products to the broader market at the right time. The WhyLabs team are practitioners building for practitioners. They have intimate, first-hand knowledge of the challenges facing AI builders from their years at Amazon and are putting that experience and insight to work for their customers,” said Tim Porter, managing director at Madrona. “We couldn’t be more excited to invest in WhyLabs and partner with them to bring cross-platform model reliability and observability to this exploding category of MLOps.”

May
19
2020
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Microsoft launches Project Bonsai, its new machine teaching service for building autonomous systems

At its Build developer conference, Microsoft today announced that Project Bonsai, its new machine teaching service, is now in public preview.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you remember that Microsoft acquired Bonsai, a company that focuses on machine teaching, back in 2018. Bonsai combined simulation tools with different machine learning techniques to build a general-purpose deep reinforcement learning platform, with a focus on industrial control systems.

It’s maybe no surprise then that Project Bonsai, too, has a similar focus on helping businesses teach and manage their autonomous machines. “With Project Bonsai, subject-matter experts can add state-of-the-art intelligence to their most dynamic physical systems and processes without needing a background in AI,” the company notes in its press materials.

“The public preview of Project Bonsai builds on top of the Bonsai acquisition and the autonomous systems private preview announcements made at Build and Ignite of last year,” a Microsoft spokesperson told me.

Interestingly, Microsoft notes that project Bonsai is only the first block of a larger vision to help its customers build these autonomous systems. The company also stresses the advantages of machine teaching over other machine learning approach, especially the fact that it’s less of a black box approach than other methods, which makes it easier for developers and engineers to debug systems that don’t work as expected.

In addition to Bonsai, Microsoft also today announced Project Moab, an open-source balancing robot that is meant to help engineers and developers learn the basics of how to build a real-world control system. The idea here is to teach the robot to keep a ball balanced on top of a platform that is held by three arms.

Potential users will be able to either 3D print the robot themselves or buy one when it goes on sale later this year. There is also a simulation, developed by MathWorks, that developers can try out immediately.

“You can very quickly take it into areas where doing it in traditional ways would not be easy, such as balancing an egg instead,” said Mark Hammond, Microsoft General Manager
for Autonomous Systems. “The point of the Project Moab system is to provide that
playground where engineers tackling various problems can learn how to use the tooling and simulation models. Once they understand the concepts, they can apply it to their novel use case.”

Nov
07
2019
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How Microsoft is trying to become more innovative

Microsoft Research is a globally distributed playground for people interested in solving fundamental science problems.

These projects often focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence, and since Microsoft is on a mission to infuse all of its products with more AI smarts, it’s no surprise that it’s also seeking ways to integrate Microsoft Research’s innovations into the rest of the company.

Across the board, the company is trying to find ways to become more innovative, especially around its work in AI, and it’s putting processes in place to do so. Microsoft is unusually open about this process, too, and actually made it somewhat of a focus this week at Ignite, a yearly conference that typically focuses more on technical IT management topics.

At Ignite, Microsoft will for the first time present these projects externally at a dedicated keynote. That feels similar to what Google used to do with its ATAP group at its I/O events and is obviously meant to showcase the cutting-edge innovation that happens inside of Microsoft (outside of making Excel smarter).

To manage its AI innovation efforts, Microsoft created the Microsoft AI group led by VP Mitra Azizirad, who’s tasked with establishing thought leadership in this space internally and externally, and helping the company itself innovate faster (Microsoft’s AI for Good projects also fall under this group’s purview). I sat down with Azizirad to get a better idea of what her team is doing and how she approaches getting companies to innovate around AI and bring research projects out of the lab.

“We began to put together a narrative for the company of what it really means to be in an AI-driven world and what we look at from a differentiated perspective,” Azizirad said. “What we’ve done in this area is something that has resonated and landed well. And now we’re including AI, but we’re expanding beyond it to other paradigm shifts like human-machine interaction, future of computing and digital responsibility, as more than just a set of principles and practices but an area of innovation in and of itself.”

Currently, Microsoft is doing a very good job at talking and thinking about horizon one opportunities, as well as horizon three projects that are still years out, she said. “Horizon two, we need to get better at, and that’s what we’re doing.”

It’s worth stressing that Microsoft AI, which launched about two years ago, marks the first time there’s a business, marketing and product management team associated with Microsoft Research, so the team does get a lot of insights into upcoming technologies. Just in the last couple of years, Microsoft has published more than 6,000 research papers on AI, some of which clearly have a future in the company’s products.

Jun
12
2019
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RealityEngines.AI raises $5.25M seed round to make ML easier for enterprises

RealityEngines.AI, a research startup that wants to help enterprises make better use of AI, even when they only have incomplete data, today announced that it has raised a $5.25 million seed funding round. The round was led by former Google CEO and Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google founding board member Ram Shriram. Khosla Ventures, Paul Buchheit, Deepchand Nishar, Elad Gil, Keval Desai, Don Burnette and others also participated in this round.

The fact that the service was able to raise from this rather prominent group of investors clearly shows that its overall thesis resonates. The company, which doesn’t have a product yet, tells me that it specifically wants to help enterprises make better use of the smaller and noisier data sets they have and provide them with state-of-the-art machine learning and AI systems that they can quickly take into production. It also aims to provide its customers with systems that can explain their predictions and are free of various forms of bias, something that’s hard to do when the system is essentially a black box.

As RealityEngines CEO Bindu Reddy, who was previously the head of products for Google Apps, told me, the company plans to use the funding to build out its research and development team. The company, after all, is tackling some of the most fundamental and hardest problems in machine learning right now — and that costs money. Some, like working with smaller data sets, already have some available solutions like generative adversarial networks that can augment existing data sets and that RealityEngines expects to innovate on.

Reddy is also betting on reinforcement learning as one of the core machine learning techniques for the platform.

Once it has its product in place, the plan is to make it available as a pay-as-you-go managed service that will make machine learning more accessible to large enterprise, but also to small and medium businesses, which also increasingly need access to these tools to remain competitive.

May
02
2019
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Microsoft launches a drag-and-drop machine learning tool

Microsoft today announced three new services that all aim to simplify the process of machine learning. These range from a new interface for a tool that completely automates the process of creating models, to a new no-code visual interface for building, training and deploying models, all the way to hosted Jupyter-style notebooks for advanced users.

Getting started with machine learning is hard. Even to run the most basic of experiments take a good amount of expertise. All of these new tools great simplify this process by hiding away the code or giving those who want to write their own code a pre-configured platform for doing so.

The new interface for Azure’s automated machine learning tool makes creating a model as easy importing a data set and then telling the service which value to predict. Users don’t need to write a single line of code, while in the backend, this updated version now supports a number of new algorithms and optimizations that should result in more accurate models. While most of this is automated, Microsoft stresses that the service provides “complete transparency into algorithms, so developers and data scientists can manually override and control the process.”

For those who want a bit more control from the get-go, Microsoft also today launched a visual interface for its Azure Machine Learning service into preview that will allow developers to build, train and deploy machine learning models without having to touch any code.

This tool, the Azure Machine Learning visual interface looks suspiciously like the existing Azure ML Studio, Microsoft’s first stab at building a visual machine learning tool. Indeed, the two services look identical. The company never really pushed this service, though, and almost seemed to have forgotten about it despite that fact that it always seemed like a really useful tool for getting started with machine learning.

Microsoft says that this new version combines the best of Azure ML Studio with the Azure Machine Learning service. In practice, this means that while the interface is almost identical, the Azure Machine Learning visual interface extends what was possible with ML Studio by running on top of the Azure Machine Learning service and adding that services’ security, deployment and lifecycle management capabilities.

The service provides an easy interface for cleaning up your data, training models with the help of different algorithms, evaluating them and, finally, putting them into production.

While these first two services clearly target novices, the new hosted notebooks in Azure Machine Learning are clearly geared toward the more experiences machine learning practitioner. The notebooks come pre-packaged with support for the Azure Machine Learning Python SDK and run in what the company describes as a “secure, enterprise-ready environment.” While using these notebooks isn’t trivial either, this new feature allows developers to quickly get started without the hassle of setting up a new development environment with all the necessary cloud resources.

Jul
06
2017
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H2O.ai’s Driverless AI automates machine learning for businesses

 Driverless AI is the latest product from H2O.ai aimed at lowering the barrier to making data science work in a corporate context. The tool assists non-technical employees with preparing data, calibrating parameters and determining the optimal algorithms for tackling specific business problems with machine learning. Read More

May
17
2017
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Google is giving a cluster of 1,000 Cloud TPUs to researchers for free

 At the end of Google I/O, the company unveiled a new program to give researchers access to the company’s most advanced machine learning technologies for free. The TensorFlow Research Cloud program, as it will be called, will be application based and open to anyone conducting research, rather than just members of academia. If accepted, researchers will get access to a cluster of 1,000… Read More

May
17
2017
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Google.ai aims to make state of the art AI advances accessible to everyone

 On the stage of Google I/O, CEO Sundar Pichai announced Google.ai, a new initiative to democratize the benefits of the latest in machine learning research. Google.ai will serve as a center of Google’s AI efforts — including research, tools and applied AI. The new site will host research from Google and its Brain Team. It also allows anyone to quickly access fun experiments… Read More

May
16
2017
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The Partnership on AI adds Intel, Salesforce and others as it formalizes Grand Challenges and work groups

 Intel, Salesforce, eBay, Sony, SAP, McKinsey & Company, Zalando and Cogitai are joining the Partnership on AI, a collection of companies and non-profits that have committed to sharing best practices and communicating openly about the benefits and risks of artificial intelligence research. The new members will be working alongside existing partners that include Facebook, Amazon, Google,… Read More

Mar
10
2017
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Google partners with VCs to host its own machine learning startup competition

 On the heels of acquiring data science community Kaggle, Google is launching a machine learning competition of its own for startups. Google is targeting early-stage companies taking an innovative approach to machine learning. The competition is being run in partnership with seven venture capital firms. Read More

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