Using an artificial intelligence technique inspired by theories about how the brain recognizes patterns, technology companies are reporting startling gains in fields as diverse as computer vision, speech recognition and the identification of promising new molecules for designing drugs.
The advances have led to widespread enthusiasm among researchers who design software to perform human activities like seeing, listening and thinking. They offer the promise of machines that converse with humans and perform tasks like driving cars and working in factories, raising the specter of automated robots that could replace human workers…
What is new in recent months is the growing speed and accuracy of deep-learning programs, often called artificial neural networks or just “neural nets” for their resemblance to the neural connections in the brain.
“There has been a number of stunning new results with deep-learning methods,” said Yann LeCun, a computer scientist at New York University who did pioneering research in handwriting recognition at Bell Laboratories. “The kind of jump we are seeing in the accuracy of these systems is very rare indeed.”
Artificial intelligence researchers are acutely aware of the dangers of being overly optimistic. Their field has long been plagued by outbursts of misplaced enthusiasm followed by equally striking declines…
But recent achievements have impressed a wide spectrum of computer experts. In October, for example, a team of graduate students studying with the University of Toronto computer scientist Geoffrey E. Hinton won the top prize in a contest sponsored by Merck to design software to help find molecules that might lead to new drugs…
The achievement was particularly impressive because the team decided to enter the contest at the last minute and designed its software with no specific knowledge about how the molecules bind to their targets. The students were also working with a relatively small set of data; neural nets typically perform well only with very large ones.
“This is a really breathtaking result because it is the first time that deep learning won, and more significantly it won on a data set that it wouldn’t have been expected to win at,” said Anthony Goldbloom, chief executive and founder of Kaggle, a company that organizes data science competitions, including the Merck contest.
Deep learning was given a particularly audacious display at a conference last month in Tianjin, China, when Richard F. Rashid, Microsoft’s top scientist, gave a lecture in a cavernous auditorium while a computer program recognized his words and simultaneously displayed them in English on a large screen above his head.
Then, in a demonstration that led to stunned applause, he paused after each sentence and the words were translated into Mandarin Chinese characters, accompanied by a simulation of his own voice in that language, which Dr. Rashid has never spoken.
The feat was made possible, in part, by deep-learning techniques that have spurred improvements in the accuracy of speech recognition.
Dr. Rashid, who oversees Microsoft’s worldwide research organization, acknowledged that while his company’s new speech recognition software made 30 percent fewer errors than previous models, it was “still far from perfect.”
“Rather than having one word in four or five incorrect, now the error rate is one word in seven or eight,” he wrote on Microsoft’s Web site. Still, he added that this was “the most dramatic change in accuracy” since 1979, “and as we add more data to the training we believe that we will get even better results.”
One of the most striking aspects of the research led by Dr. Hinton is that it has taken place largely without the patent restrictions and bitter infighting over intellectual property that characterize high-technology fields.
“We decided early on not to make money out of this, but just to sort of spread it to infect everybody,” he said. “These companies are terribly pleased with this.”
Bravo. I expect the naysayers who can always step back and be surprised if something works – will maintain the habit of negative evaluation of progress in the AI field. Some folks always feel better being right about something not working – even if they just made up the expectations.