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Auto AI and Machine Learning Systems Design

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at UK Systems Research, Virtual Seminar Series on Nov 25, 2020 [reveal]
Neil D. Lawrence, University of Cambridge

Abstract

It seems that we would like to design artificial intelligences, robust decision-making systems that understand the broader context of the decisions they are making, including the history and nature of human experience. At least, that is what the global hype around artificial intelligence implies we are doing. The reality is very different. In practice, we are designing and deploying data-driven decision-making systems within complex software systems with little to no understanding of the downstream implications. At the heart of the challenge is standard practice around the design and construction of modern, complex, software systems. In particular, we have resolved the challenge of the mythical person-month through separation of concerns. Decomposition of the task into separate entities, each of which has defined input and outputs and each of which is normally developed and/or maintained by a single software team. The challenge with such large-scale software systems is that they have incredible complexity. Separation of concerns enables us to deal with such complexity with a decomposition of components. Unfortunately, this means that no team is ‘concerned’ with the overall operation of this system. Modern artificial intelligence is based on machine learning algorithms. In deployment these become components of the larger system that make decisions through observing historic data around those decisions and emulating those decisions through fitting mathematical functions to the data. The field of machine learning is closely related to statistics, but in contrast to statistics, less emphasis has traditionally been placed on the interpretability of model outputs or the validity of decisions in the sense of some form of ‘statistical truth’. This released the field from the constraints of the simpler models that statisticians have typically focussed on, but the success of these models has triggered a wave of head scratching around the fairness, explainability and transparency of such models (FET models). FET models are an active area of machine learning research with their own conference. The challenge we are interested in is deeper: FET systems. When separation of concerns has been deployed, even if an individual model is FET then there is no guarantee that the entire system of interacting components will be FET. That would require composition of our criteria for fairness, explainability and transparency. Other authors have already pointed out the challenges of technical debt in machine learning systems. Technical debt is the challenge of building systems that are maintainable in production without significant additional labour, but the deeper problem is one of intellectual debt. We are deploying systems that are not explainable in production without deeper significant additional intellectual labour. This presentation is a call for help. We urgently need the expertise of the UK Systems Community around these issues to ensure we can construct safe, maintainable and explainable artificial intelligence solutions through FET systems.

It seems that we would like to design artificial intelligences, robust decision-making systems that understand the broader context of the decisions they are making, including the history and nature of human experience. At least, that is what the global hype around artificial intelligence implies we are doing.

Figure: The centrifugal governor, an early example of a decision making system. The parameters of the governor include the lengths of the linkages (which effect how far the throttle opens in response to movement in the balls), the weight of the balls (which effects inertia) and the limits of to which the balls can rise.

The reality is very different. In practice, we are designing and deploying data-driven decision-making systems within complex software systems with little to no understanding of the downstream implications.

Supply Chain Optimization

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Llew Mason Devesh Mishra

Figure: Promotional video for the Amazon supply chain optimization team.

Supply Chain Optimization

Llew Mason Devesh Mishra

Figure: A schematic of a typical buying system for supply chain.

Forecasting

Jenny Freshwater Ping Xu Dean Foster

Figure: Jenny Freshwater speaking at the Amazon re:MARS event in June 2019.

Inventory and Buying

Deepak Bhatia Piyush Saraogi Raman Iyer Salal Humair Narayan Venkatasubramanyan

The Mythical Man-month

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Figure: The Mythical Man-month (Brooks, n.d.) is a 1975 book focussed on the challenges of software project coordination.

However, when managing systems in production, you soon discover maintenance of a rapidly deployed system is not your only problem.

To deploy large and complex software systems, an engineering approach known as “separation of concerns” is taken. Frederick Brooks’ book “The Mythical Man-month” (Brooks, n.d.), has itself gained almost mythical status in the community. It focuses on what has become known as Brooks’ law “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.

Adding people (men or women!) to a project delays it because of the communication overhead required to get people up to speed.

At the heart of the challenge is standard practice around the design and construction of modern, complex, software systems. In particular, we have resolved the challenge of the mythical person-month through separation of concerns. Decomposition of the task into separate entities, each of which has defined input and outputs and each of which is normally developed and/or maintained by a single software team.

The challenge with such large-scale software systems is that they have incredible complexity. Separation of concerns enables us to deal with such complexity with a decomposition of components. Unfortunately, this means that no team is ‘concerned’ with the overall operation of this system.

Separation of Concerns

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To construct such complex systems an approach known as “separation of concerns” has been developed. The idea is that you architect your system, which consists of a large-scale complex task, into a set of simpler tasks. Each of these tasks is separately implemented. This is known as the decomposition of the task.

This is where Jonathan Zittrain’s beautifully named term “intellectual debt” rises to the fore. Separation of concerns enables the construction of a complex system. But who is concerned with the overall system?

  • Technical debt is the inability to maintain your complex software system.

  • Intellectual debt is the inability to explain your software system.

It is right there in our approach to software engineering. “Separation of concerns” means no one is concerned about the overall system itself.

Modern artificial intelligence is based on machine learning algorithms. In deployment these become components of the larger system that make decisions through observing historic data around those decisions and emulating those decisions through fitting mathematical functions to the data.

The field of machine learning is closely related to statistics, but in contrast to statistics, less emphasis has traditionally been placed on the interpretability of model outputs or the validity of decisions in the sense of some form of ‘statistical truth’.

This released the field from the constraints of the simpler models that statisticians have typically focussed on, but the success of these models has triggered a wave of head scratching around the fairness, explainability and transparency of such models (FIT models). FIT models are an active area of machine learning research with their own conference.

The challenge we are interested in is deeper: FIT systems. When separation of concerns has been deployed, even if an individual model is FIT then there is no guarantee that the entire system of interacting components will be FIT. That would require composition of our criteria for fairness, explainability and transparency.

FIT Models to FIT Systems

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Zittrain points out the challenge around the lack of interpretability of individual ML models as the origin of intellectual debt. In machine learning I refer to work in this area as fairness, interpretability and transparency or FIT models. To an extent I agree with Zittrain, but if we understand the context and purpose of the decision making, I believe this is readily put right by the correct monitoring and retraining regime around the model. A concept I refer to as “progression testing”. Indeed, the best teams do this at the moment, and their failure to do it feels more of a matter of technical debt rather than intellectual, because arguably it is a maintenance task rather than an explanation task. After all, we have good statistical tools for interpreting individual models and decisions when we have the context. We can linearise around the operating point, we can perform counterfactual tests on the model. We can build empirical validation sets that explore fairness or accuracy of the model.

So, this is where, my understanding of intellectual debt in ML systems departs, I believe from John Zittrain’s. The long-term challenge is not in the individual model. We have excellent statistical tools for validating what any individual model, the long-term challenge is the complex interaction between different components in the decomposed system, where the original intent of each component has been forgotten (except perhaps by Lancelot) and each service has been repurposed. We need to move from FIT models to FIT systems.

How to address these challenges? With collaborators I’ve been working towards a solution that contains broadly two parts. The first part is what we refer to as “Data-Oriented Architectures”. The second part is “meta modelling”, machine learning techniques that help us model the models.

Other authors have already pointed out the challenges of technical debt in machine learning systems. Technical debt is the challenge of building systems that are maintainable in production without significant additional labour, but the deeper problem is one of intellectual debt. We are deploying systems that are not explainable in production without deeper significant additional intellectual labour.

This presentation is a call for help. We urgently need the expertise of the UK Systems Community around these issues to ensure we can construct safe, maintainable and explainable artificial intelligence solutions through FIT systems.

Service Oriented Architecture

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Charlie Bell Peter Vosshall

Figure: A potential path of models in a machine learning system.

Service Oriented Architecture

Charlie Bell Peter Vosshall

Figure: A potential path of models in a machine learning system.

Data Oriented Architectures

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In a streaming architecture we shift from management of services, to management of data streams. Instead of worrying about availability of the services we shift to worrying about the quality of the data those services are producing.

Historically we’ve been software first, this is a necessary but insufficient condition for data first. We need to move from software-as-a-service to data-as-a-service, from service oriented architectures to data oriented architectures.

Streaming System

Characteristics of a streaming system include a move from pull updates to push updates, i.e. the computation is driven by a change in the input data rather than the service calling for input data when it decides to run a computation. Streaming systems operate on ‘rows’ of the data rather than ‘columns’. This is because the full column isn’t normally available as it changes over time. As an important design principle, the services themselves are stateless, they take their state from the streaming ecosystem. This ensures the inputs and outputs of given computations are easy to declare. As a result, persistence of the data is also handled by the streaming ecosystem and decisions around data retention or recomputation can be taken at the systems level rather than the component level.

Recommendation: We should consider a major re-architecting of systems around our services. In particular we should scope the use of a streaming architecture (such as Apache Kafka) that ensures data persistence and enables asynchronous operation of our systems.1 This would enable the provision of QC streams, and real time dash boards as well as hypervisors.

Importantly a streaming architecture implies the services we build are stateless, internal state is deployed on streams alongside external state. This allows for rapid assessment of other services’ data.

The philosphy of DOA is also possible with more standard data infrastructures, such as SQL data bases, but more work has to be put into place to ensure that book-keeping around data provenance and origin is stored, as well as approaches for snapshotting the data ecosystem.

Milan

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To answer these challenges at Amazon we began the process of constructing software for data oriented architectures. The team built a data-oriented programming language which is now available through MIT license. The language is called Milan.

Tom Borchert

The Principle Engineer behind the Milan architecture has been Tom Borchert.Quoting from Tom Borchert’s blog on Milan:

Milan has three components:

  1. A general-purpose stream algebra that encodes relationships between data streams (the Milan Intermediate Language or Milan IL)

  2. A Scala library for building programs in that algebra.

  3. A compiler that takes programs expressed in Milan IL and produces a Flink application that executes the program.

Component (2) can be extended to support interfaces in additional languages, and component (3) can be extended to support additional runtime targets. Considering just the multiple interfaces and the multiple runtimes, Milan looks a lot like the much more mature Apache Beam. The difference lies in (1), Milan’s general-purpose stream algebra. }

Figure: The Milan Software has a general purpose stream algebra at its core, the Milan IL.

Figure: The Milan Software is designed for building modern AI systems. https://github.com/amzn/milan/

It is through the general-purpose stream algebra that we hope to make significant inroads on the intellectual debt challenge.

The stream algebra defines the relationship between different machine learning components in the wider software architecture. Composition of multiple services cannot occur without a signature existing within the stream algebra. The Milan IL becomes the key information structure that is required to reason about the wider software system.

Context

This deals with the challenges that arise through the intellectual debt because we can now see the context around each service. This allows us to design the relevant validation checks to ensure that accuracy and fairness are maintained. By recompiling the algebra to focus on a particular decision within the system we can also derive new statistical tests to validate performance. These are the checks that we refer to as progression testing. The loss of programmer control means that we can no longer rely on software tests written at design time, we must have the capability to deploy new (statistical) tests after deployment as the uses to which each service is placed extend to previously un-envisaged domains.

Stateless Services

Importantly, Milan does not place onerous constraints on the builders of individual machine learning models (or other components). Standard modelling frameworks can be used. The main constraint is that any code that is not visible to the ecosystem does not maintain or store global state. This condition implies that the parameters of any machine learning model need to also be declared as an input to the model within the Milan IL.

Meta Modelling

Figure: The Emukit software is a set of software tools for emulation and surrogate modeling. https://amzn.github.io/emukit/

Where does machine learning come in? The strategy I propose is that the Milan IL is integrated with meta-modelling approaches to assist in the explanation of the decision-making framework. At their simplest these approaches may be novelty detection algorithms on the data streams that are emerging from a given service. This is a form of progression testing. But we can go much further. By knowing the training data, the inputs and outputs of the individual services in the software ecosystem, we can build meta-models that test for fairness, accuracy not just of individual system components, but short or long cascades of decision making. Through the use of the Milan IL algebra all these tests could be automatically deployed. The focus of machine learning is on the models-that-model-the-models. The meta-models.

In Amazon, our own focus was on the use of statistical emulators, sometimes known as surrogate models, for fulfilling this task. The work we were putting into this route is available through another software package, Emukit, a framework for decision making under uncertainty. With collaborators my current focus for addressing these issues is a form of fusion of Emukit and Milan (Milemukit??). But the nature of this fusion requires testing on real world problem sets. A task we hope to carry out in close collaboration with colleagues at Data Science Africa.

Conclusion

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We operate in a technologically evolving environment. Machine learning is becoming a key coponent in our decision-making capabilities, our intelligence and strategic command. However, technology drove changes in battlefield strategy. From the stalemate of the first world war to the tank-dominated Blitzkrieg of the second, to the asymmetric warfare of the present. Our technology, tactics and strategies are also constantly evolving. Machine learning is part of that evolution solution, but the main challenge is not to become so fixated on the tactics of today that we miss the evolution of strategy that the technology is suggesting.

Data oriented programming offers a set of development methodologies which ensure that the system designer considers what decisions are required, how they will be made, and critically, declares this within the system architecture.

This allows for monitoring of data quality, fairness, model accuracy and opens the door to Auto AI: a more sophisticated form of auto ML where full redployments of models are considered while analyzing the information dynamics of a complex automated decision-making system.

Thanks!

For more information on these subjects and more you might want to check the following resources.

References

Brooks, Frederick. n.d. The Mythical Man-Month. Addison-Wesley.


  1. These approaches are one area of focus for my own team’s research. A data first architecture is a prerequisite for efficient deployment of machine learning systems.↩︎