Key Data and AI trends in 2017

This year, 2017, has been quite a busy year for artificial intelligence and data science professionals. In some ways, this is the year when AI truly began to be debated and discussed, from frameworks and technologies to ethics and morality. This is the year when opportunities for AI-driven improvement in businesses began to be examined critically by diverse industry professionals and academicians.With good reason, machine learning and deep learning came to be placed at the top of the Garner’s hype cycle. We’re really at the peak of inflated expectations when it comes to ML/DL – with opportunities to shorten the time we take to reach measurable and direct consumer value.

Image result for gartner hype cycle 2017
Gartner Hype Cycle for 2017

Overall, in my experience, three key trends that enterprises welcomed in 2017 include:

  1. Simplification of cloud and data infrastructure services
  2. Improved and democratized scalable machine learning and deep learning
  3. Automation in key AI, ML and data analysis tasks

Improving Cloud and Data Infrastructure

Perhaps the foundational enabler for the data strategy of many enterprises that I have seen and worked with in 2017, is the availability of an easily operated and managed scalable cloud infrastructure. This promise of a high performance, low cost and (arbitrarily) scalable cloud infrastructure was made as early as 2014, but has taken a few years to materialize as a truly viable, business-wise feasible commercial offering from a stable, top-tier technology firm. Prominent cloud vendors such as Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure and Amazon’s AWS have upped the ante, while veterans like Hortonworks, Cloudera continue to hold sway. This space where the cloud vendors are competing is ripe for consolidation, in my view, although we can expect to see converging architectures before viable consolidation that isn’t entirely wasteful can happen.

Other notable developments on the cloud infrastructure side of things were ideas such as serverless compute (which enterprises are definitely warming up to – and it shows, in the Gartner Hype Cycle), production-ready pre-built models for common tasks as APIs (a trend that continues to inspire software/AI application architecture) and the performing of streaming and real-time data processing frameworks. By combining these capabilities in cloud platforms, cloud providers have really upped their offerings in 2017 compared to before, and provide formidable capabilities – which in my view haven’t even been explored as much as they should have been by businesses.

Despite the availability of such production-ready, cost-effective and scalable data management systems in the cloud, cloud infrastructure has nevertheless come under scrutiny in 2017 for massive security lapses and downtime. To speak of specific examples, we had the biggest impact events in cloud reliability and data security history between Equifax data breach and the massive AWS outage, to say nothing of the numerous data security episodes of smaller scale that were attributable to hacktivism, such as the Panama Papers.

As a counter to some of these incidents and the rise of the GDPR and other data protection regulations, numerous cloud providers have been offering “private cloud” solutions, along with region-specific hosting options for banks and other organizations that deal with regulation-sensitive data.

Additonally, it would be unfair to not point out how much containerization has helped cloud providers in 2017. Massive scale adoption of containerization using Docker and Kubernetes has enabled virtual environments to be set up and managed for complex development and deployment tasks that are data intensive.

Spark and Tensorflow

The space of scalable machine learning frameworks continues to be dominated by Apache Spark – which has found many friends among data engineers and scientists in production after the 2.0 release, especially, given its equitable performance for the data frame APIs across languages. So, whether you program in Python, R, or Scala, you can be assured of the same high performance from Spark these days. Spark ML has expanded on the capabilities of Spark ML Lib, and in its recent releases, Spark has also polished and unified the interfaces for streaming data analysis on Spark-Streaming and graph analysis via GraphX. As someone who has seen teams use Spark for different purposes and built frameworks on it in 2017, the differences between versions 1.6 and below, and 2.0 and above are significant, and the newer versions are more polished and consistent in their behaviour.

Tensorflow received a lot of hype but only lackluster adoption in late 2016 and early 2017, but over the last several months, has made a strong case for itself, and adoption has grown significantly. As developers have warmed up to the framework, and as more language interfaces have been developed for Tensorflow, its popularity has soared, especially in the latter half of 2017. Another factor in the development and adoption of Tensorflow is the widespread use of GPU based deep learning. The core Tensorflow development team’s additions to 1.0 (as explained by Jeff Dean here) have made it a mature deep learning development package and perhaps the most widely used and sought after deep learning framework. While Torch makes an impression and is widely loved (especially in its PyTorch form), Tensorflow is hard to beat for the speed and dynamism of its high quality open source contributors. At Strata Singapore 2016, I sat through a tutorial on Tensorflow 0.8, and what I saw then contrasts with what I see in versions 1.0 and higher. My recent brushes with Tensorflow have made me more convinced that this is the framework to learn for deep learning developers at the moment. The presence of wrappers and higher level interfaces, such as Keras or Caffe, has made Tensorflow very easy to use for entry-level and intermediate programmers and data scientists.

Automation in ML, DL and Data Science

Without a doubt, the development of automation-centric techniques to automate parts of ML and DL development is one of the biggest and most important directions within the field of Artificial Intelligence in 2017. Taking after Leo Brieman’s random forests (an ensemble of “weak learners” resulting in a machine learning model with high performance) and various advancements in deep learning and machine vision (especially convolutional neural networks, which essentially encode complex features using simpler features in computer vision problems), hyper parameter optimization automation was probably the first step in the general direction of automated machine learning.

Frameworks like AutoML (see the talk by Andreas Mueller above) have been the cynosure of this kind of research, and companies small and large have begun attempting different approaches for solving the context modeling problem that arise from the need to automate data science. While most approaches towards machine learning have taken a classical approach, by finding computational approaches to learn more and more from data, some have take non-traditional approaches, by combining ideas from expert systems, rule based inference engines, and other approaches. A novel approach to machine learning has been the invention and development of generative adversarial networks (GANs) which could lead to hitherto unseen improvements in the use of computationally generated data as a starting point for understanding the best representations of a given dataset. Despite being invented in 2014, it is in 2017 that implementations of this kind of network became popular and came to be considered as a viable neural network architecture for computer vision and other kinds of machine learning problems.

Other noteworthy trends within the data and AI space include the rise and improved performance of chat bots and conversational natural-language enabled APIs, the amazing improvements to translation and image tagging made possible by deep learning, and the important question of AI ethics – starting from that now-famous question of “should your self-driving car kill a pedestrian in order to save your life”, to ethical conundrums and alarmist remarks from tech luminaries such as Elon Musk.

Concluding Remarks

So, what does 2018 hold in store? That seems to be the question on everyone’s lips in the data and AI world, and it is also what data and AI enthusiasts in different industry roles are looking to understand. While it is not possible to clearly say which trend will dictate progress in 2018 and beyond, it is clear that the above three developments will form key cornerstones on top of which future capabilities for AI and enterprise scale data management and data science will be built. Hope you enjoyed reading this. Do leave a comment or a note if you would like to share more.

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