Beau Cronin

Beau Cronin was a co-founder of Prior Knowledge (PK), a startup that developed and offered a predictive database service based on probabilistic modeling and scaled inference. PK was acquired by Salesforce in late 2012, where Beau now works as a senior manager of predictive products. He has a PhD in computational neuroscience from MIT, where his research focused on probabilistic models of neuronal response; he also has a BA in computer science from UC Berkeley. He lives in Oakland, CA, with his wife and young daughter.

Evaluating machine learning systems: Kaggle’s not enough

We should raise our collective expectations of what they should provide

There is a tremendous amount of commercial attention on machine learning (ML) methods and applications. This includes product and content recommender systems, predictive models for churn and lead scoring, systems to assist in medical diagnosis, social network sentiment analysis, and on and on. ML often carries the burden of extracting value from big data.

But getting good results from machine learning still requires much art, persistence, and even luck. An engineer can’t yet treat ML as just another well-bahaved part of the technology stack. There are many underlying reasons for this, but for the moment I want to focus on how we measure or evaluate ML systems.

Reflecting their academic roots, machine learning methods have traditionally been evaluated in terms of narrow quantitative metrics: precision, recall, RMS error, and so on. The data-science-as-competitive-sport site Kaggle has adopted these metrics for many of its competitions. They are objective and reassuringly concrete.

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A different take on data skepticism

Our tools should make common cases easy and safe, but that's not the reality today.

Recently, the Mathbabe (aka Cathy O’Neilvented some frustration about the pitfalls in applying even simple machine learning (ML) methods like k-nearest neighbors. As data science is democratized, she worries that naive practitioners will shoot themselves in the foot because these tools can offer very misleading results. Maybe data science is best left to the pros? Mike Loukides picked up this thread, calling for healthy skepticism in our approach to data and implicitly cautioning against a “cargo cult” approach in which data collection and analysis methods are blindly copied from previous efforts without sufficient attempts to understand their potential biases and shortcomings.

Well, arguing against greater understanding of the methods we apply is like arguing against motherhood and apple pie, and Cathy and Mike are spot on in their diagnoses of the current situation. And yet …

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What is probabilistic programming?

Probabilistic languages can free developers from the complexities of high-performance probabilistic inference.

Probabilistic programming languages are in the spotlight. This is due to the announcement of a new DARPA program to support their fundamental research. But what is probabilistic programming? What can we expect from this research? Will this effort pay off? How long will it take?

A probabilistic programming language is a high-level language that makes it easy for a developer to define probability models and then “solve” these models automatically. These languages incorporate random events as primitives and their runtime environment handles inference. Now, it is a matter of programming that enables a clean separation between modeling and inference. This can vastly reduce the time and effort associated with implementing new models and understanding data. Just as high-level programming languages transformed developer productivity by abstracting away the details of the processor and memory architecture, probabilistic languages promise to free the developer from the complexities of high-performance probabilistic inference. Read more…

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