Machine Learning Experts - Sasha Luccioni
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Hey friends! Welcome to Machine Learning Experts. I'm your host, Britney Muller and today’s guest is Sasha Luccioni. Sasha is a Research Scientist at Hugging Face where she works on the ethical and societal impacts of Machine Learning models and datasets.
Sasha is also a co-chair of the Carbon Footprint WG of the Big Science Workshop, on the Board of WiML, and a founding member of the Climate Change AI (CCAI) organization which catalyzes impactful work applying machine learning to the climate crisis.
You’ll hear Sasha talk about how she measures the carbon footprint of an email, how she helped a local soup kitchen leverage the power of ML, and how meaning and creativity fuel her work.
Very excited to introduce this brilliant episode to you! Here’s my conversation with Sasha Luccioni:
Note: Transcription has been slightly modified/reformatted to deliver the highest-quality reading experience.
Thank you so much for joining us today, we are so excited to have you on!
Sasha: I'm really excited to be here.
Diving right in, can you speak to your background and what led you to Hugging Face?
Sasha: Yeah, I mean if we go all the way back, I started studying linguistics. I was super into languages and both of my parents were mathematicians. But I thought, I don't want to do math, I want to do language. I started doing NLP, natural language processing, during my undergrad and got super into it.
My Ph.D. was in computer science, but I maintained a linguistic angle. I started out in humanities and then got into computer science. Then after my Ph.D., I spent a couple of years working in applied AI research. My last job was in finance, and then one day I decided that I wanted to do good and socially positive AI research, so I quit my job. I decided that no amount of money was worth working on AI for AI's sake, I wanted to do more. So I spent a couple of years working with Yoshua Bengio, meanwhile working on AI for good projects, AI for climate change projects, and then I was looking for my next role.
I wanted to be in a place that I trusted was doing the right things and going in the right direction. When I met Thom and Clem, I knew that Hugging Face was a place for me and that it would be exactly what I was looking for.
Love that you wanted to something that felt meaningful!
Sasha: Yeah, when I hear people on Sunday evening being like “Monday's tomorrow…” I'm like “Tomorrow's Monday! That's great!” And it's not that I'm a workaholic, I definitely do other stuff, and have a family and everything, but I'm literally excited to go to work to do really cool stuff. Think that's important. I know people can live without it, but I can't.
What are you most excited about that you're working on now?
Sasha: I think the Big Science project is definitely super inspiring. For the last couple of years, I've been seeing these large language models, and I was always like, but how do they work? And where's the code, where's their data, and what's going on in there? How are they developed and who was involved? It was all like a black box thing, and I'm so happy that we're finally making it a glass box. And there are so many people involved and so many really interesting perspectives.
And I'm chairing the carbon footprint working group, so we're working on different aspects of environmental impacts and above and beyond just counting CO2 emissions, but other things like the manufacturing costs. At some point, we even consider how much CO2 an email generates, things like that, so we're definitely thinking of different perspectives.
Also about the data, I'm involved in a lot of the data working groups at Big Science, and it's really interesting because typically it’s been like we're gonna get the most data we can, stuff it in a language model and it's gonna be great. And it's gonna learn all this stuff, but what's actually in there, there's so much weird stuff on the internet, and things that you don't necessarily want your model to be seeing. So we're really looking into mindfulness, data curation, and multilingualism as well to make sure that it's not just a hundred percent English or 99% English. So it's such a great initiative, and it makes me excited to be involved.
Love the idea of evaluating the carbon footprint of an email!?
Sasha: Yeah, people did it, depending on the attachment or not, but it was just because we found this article of, I think it was a theoretical physics project and they did that, they did everything. They did video calls, travel commutes, emails, and the actual experiments as well. And they made this pie chart and it was cool because there were 37 categories in the pie chart, and we really wanted to do that. But I don't know if we want to go into that level of detail, but we were going to do a survey and ask participants on average, how many hours did they spend working on Big Science or training in language models and things like that. So we didn’t want just the number of GPU hours for training the model, but also people's implication and participation in the project.
Can you speak a little bit more about the environmental impact of AI?
Sasha: Yeah, it's a topic I got involved in three years ago now. The first article that came out was by Emma Strubell and her colleagues and they essentially trained a large language model with hyperparameter tuning. So essentially looking at all the different configurations and then the figure they got was like that AI model emitted as much carbon as five cars in their lifetimes. Which includes gas and everything, like the average kind of consumption. And with my colleagues we were like, well that doesn't sound right, it can't be all models, right? And so we really went off the deep end into figuring out what has an impact on emissions, and how we can measure emissions.
So first we just created this online calculator where someone could enter what hardware they use, how long they trained for, and where on their location or a cloud computing instance. And then it would give them an estimate of the carbon involved that they admitted. Essentially that was our first attempt, a calculator, and then we helped create a package called code carbon which actually does that in real-time. So it's gonna run in parallel to whatever you're doing training a model and then at the end spit out an estimate of the carbon emissions.
Lately we've been going further and further. I just had an article that I was a co-author on that got accepted, about how to proactively reduce emissions. For example, by anticipating times when servers are not as used as other times, like doing either time delaying or picking the right region because if you train in, I don't know, Australia, it's gonna be a coal-based grid, and so it's gonna be highly polluting. Whereas in Quebec or Montreal where I'm based, it's a hundred percent hydroelectricity. So just by making that choice, you can reduce your emissions by around a hundredfold. And so just small things like that, like above and beyond estimating, we also want people to start reducing their emissions. It's the next step.
It’s never crossed my mind that geographically where you compute has a different emissions cost.
Sasha: Oh yeah, and I'm so into energy grids now. Every time I go somewhere I'm like, so what's the energy coming from? How are you generating it? And so it's really interesting, there are a lot of historical factors and a lot of cultural factors.
For example; France is mostly nuclear, mostly energy, and Canada has a lot of hydroelectric energy. Some places have a lot of wind or tidal, and so it's really interesting just to understand when you turn on a lamp, where that electricity is coming from and at what cost to the environment. Because when I was growing up, I would always turn off the lights, and unplug whatever but not anything more than that. It was just good best practices. You turn off the light when you're not in a room, but after that, you can really go deeper depending on where you live, your energy's coming from different sources. And there is more or less pollution, but we just don't see that we don't see how energy is produced, we just see the light and we're like oh, this is my lamp. So it's really important to start thinking about that.
It's so easy not to think about that stuff, which I could see being a barrier for machine learning engineers who might not have that general awareness.
Sasha: Yeah, exactly. And I mean usually, it's just by habit, right? I think there's a default option when you're using cloud instances, often it's like the closest one to you or the one with the most GPUs available or whatever. There's a default option, and people are like okay, fine, whatever and click the default. It's this nudge theory aspect.
I did a master's in cognitive science and just by changing the default option, you can change people's behavior to an incredible degree. So whether you put apples or chocolate bars near the cash register, or small stuff like that. And so if the default option, all of a sudden was the low carbon one, we could save so many emissions just because people are just like okay, fine, I'm gonna train a model in Montreal, I don't care. It doesn't matter, as long as you have access to the hardware you need, you don't care where it is. But in the long run, it really adds up.
What are some of the ways that machine learning teams and engineers could be a bit more proactive in aspects like that?
Sasha: So I've noticed that a lot of people are really environmentally conscious. Like they'll bike to work or they'll eat less meat and things like that. They'll have this kind of environmental awareness, but then disassociate it from their work because we're not aware of our impact as machine learning researchers or engineers on the environment. And without sharing it necessarily, just starting to measure, for example, carbon emissions. And starting to look at what instances you're picking, if you have a choice. For example, I know that Google Cloud and AWS have started putting low carbon as a little tag so you can pick it because the information is there. And starting to make these little steps, and connecting the dots between environment and tech. These are dots that are not often connected because tech is so like the cloud, it's nice to be distributed, and you don't really see it. And so by grounding it more, you see the impact it can have on the environment.
That's a great point. And I've listened to a couple talks and podcasts of yours, where you've mentioned how machine learning can be used to help offset the environmental impact of models.
Sasha: Yeah, we wrote a paper a couple of years ago that was a cool experience. It's almost a hundred pages, it's called Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning. And there are like 25 authors, but there are all these different sections ranging from electricity to city planning to transportation to forestry and agriculture. We essentially have these chapters of the paper where we talk about the problems that exist. For example, renewable energy is variable in a lot of cases. So if you have solar panels, they won't produce energy at night. That's kind of like a given. And then wind power is dependent on the wind. And so a big challenge in implementing renewable energy is that you have to respond to the demand. You need to be able to give people power at night, even if you're on solar energy. And so typically you have either diesel generators or this backup system that often cancels out the environmental effect, like the emissions that you're saving, but what machine learning can do, you're essentially predicting how much energy will be needed. So based on previous days, based on the temperature, based on events that happen, you can start being like okay, well we're gonna be predicting half an hour out or an hour out or 6 hours or 24 hours. And you can start having different horizons and doing time series prediction.
Then instead of powering up a diesel generator which is cool because you can just power them up, and in a couple of seconds they're up and running. What you can also do is have batteries, but batteries you need to start charging them ahead of time. So say you're six hours out, you start charging your batteries, knowing that either there's a cloud coming or that night's gonna fall, so you need that energy stored ahead. And so there are things that you could do that are proactive that can make a huge difference. And then machine learning is good at that, it’s good at predicting the future, it’s good at finding the right features, and things like that. So that's one of the go-to examples. Another one is remote sensing. So we have a lot of satellite data about the planet and see either deforestation or tracking wildfires. In a lot of cases, you can detect wildfires automatically based on satellite imagery and deploy people right away. Because they're often in remote places that you don't necessarily have people living in. And so there are all these different cases in which machine learning could be super useful. We have the data, we have the need, and so this paper is all about how to get involved and whatever you're good at, whatever you like doing, and how to apply machine learning and use it in the fight against climate change.
For people listening that are interested in this effort, but perhaps work at an organization where it's not prioritized, what tips do you have to help incentivize teams to prioritize environmental impact?
Sasha: So it's always a question of cost and benefit or time, you know, the time that you need to put in. And sometimes people just don't know that there are different tools that exist or approaches. And so if people are interested or even curious to learn about it. I think that's the first up because even when I first started thinking of what I can do, I didn't know that all these things existed. People have been working on this for like a fairly long time using different data science techniques.
For example, we created a website called climatechange.ai, and we have interactive summaries that you can read about how climate change can help and detect methane or whatever. And I think that just by sprinkling this knowledge can help trigger some interesting thought processes or discussions. I've participated in several round tables at companies that are not traditionally climate change-oriented but are starting to think about it. And they're like okay well we put a composting bin in the kitchen, or we did this and we did that. So then from the tech side, what can we do? It's really interesting because there are a lot of low-hanging fruits that you just need to learn about. And then it's like oh well, I can do that, I can by default use this cloud computing instance and that's not gonna cost me anything. And you need to change a parameter somewhere.
What are some of the more common mistakes you see machine learning engineers or teams make when it comes to implementing these improvements?
Sasha: Actually, machine learning people or AI people, in general, have this stereotype from other communities that we think AI's gonna solve everything. We just arrived and we're like oh, we're gonna do AI. And it's gonna solve all your problems no matter what you guys have been doing for 50 years, AI's gonna do it. And I haven't seen that attitude that much, but we know what AI can do, we know what machine learning can do, and we have a certain kind of worldview. It's like when you have a hammer, everything's a nail, so it’s kind of something like that. And I participated in a couple of hackathons and just like in general, people want to make stuff or do stuff to fight climate change. It's often like oh, this sounds like a great thing AI can do, and we're gonna do it without thinking of how it's gonna be used or how it's gonna be useful or how it's gonna be. Because it's like yeah, sure, AI can do all this stuff, but then at the end of the day, someone's gonna use it.
For example, if you create something for scanning satellite imagery and detecting wildfire, the information that your model outputs has to be interpretable. Or you need to add that little extra step of sending a new email or whatever it is. Otherwise, we train a model, it's great, it's super accurate, but then at the end of the day, nobody's gonna use it just because it's missing a tiny little connection to the real world or the way that people will use it. And that's not sexy, people are like yeah, whatever, I don't even know how to write a script that sends an email. I don't either. But still, just doing that little extra step, that's so much less technologically complex than what you've done so far. Just adding that little thing will make a big difference and it can be in terms of UI, or it can be in terms of creating an app. It's like the machine learning stuff that's actually crucial for your project to be used.
And I've participated in organizing workshops where people submit ideas that are super great on paper that have great accuracy rates, but then they just stagnate in paper form or article form because you still need to have that next step. I remember this one presentation of a machine learning algorithm that could reduce flight emissions of airplanes by 3 to 7% by calculating the wind speed, etc. Of course, that person should have done a startup or a product or pitched this to Boeing or whatever, otherwise it was just a paper that they published in this workshop that I was organizing, and then that was it. And scientists or engineers don't necessarily have those skills necessary to go see an airplane manufacturer with this thing, but it's frustrating. And at the end of the day, to see these great ideas, this great tech that just fizzles.
So sad. That's such a great story though and how there are opportunities like that.
Sasha: Yeah, and I think scientists, so often, don't necessarily want to make money, they just want to solve problems often. And so you don't necessarily even need to start a startup, you could just talk to someone or pitch this to someone, but you have to get out of your comfort zone. And the academic conferences you go to, you need to go to a networking event in the aviation industry and that's scary, right? And so there are often these barriers between disciplines that I find very sad. I actually like going to a business or random industry networking event because this is where connections can get made, that can make the biggest changes. It's not in the industry-specific conferences because everyone's talking about the same technical style that of course, they're making progress and making innovations. But then if you're the only machine learning expert in a room full of aviation experts, you can do so much. You can spark all these little sparks, and after you're gonna have people reducing emissions of flights.
That's powerful. Wondering if you could add some more context as to why finding meaning in your work is so important?
Sasha: Yeah, there's this concept that my mom read about in some magazine ages ago when I was a kid. It's called Ikigai, and it's a Japanese concept, it's like how to find the reason or the meaning of life. It's kind of how to find your place in the universe. And it was like you need to find something that has these four elements. Like what you love doing, what you're good at, what the world needs and then what can be a career. I was always like this is my career, but she was always like no because even if you love doing this, but you can't get paid for it, then it's a hard life as well. And so she always asked me this when I was picking my courses at university or even my degree, she'll always be like okay, well is that aligned with things you love and things you're good at? And some things she'd be like yeah, but you're not good at that though. I mean you could really want to do this, but maybe this is not what you're good at.
So I think that it's always been my driving factor in my career. And I feel that it helps feel that you're useful and you're like a positive force in the world. For example, when I was working at Morgan Stanley, I felt that there were interesting problems like I was doing really well, no questions asked, the salary was amazing. No complaints there, but there was missing this what the world needs aspect that was kind of like this itch I couldn’t scratch essentially. But given this framing, this itchy guy, I was like oh, that's what's missing in my life. And so I think that people in general, not only in machine learning, it's good to think about not only what you're good at, but also what you love doing, what motivates you, why you would get out of bed in the morning and of course having this aspect of what the world needs. And it doesn't have to be like solving world hunger, it can be on a much smaller scale or on a much more conceptual scale.
For example, what I feel like we're doing at Hugging Face is really that machine learning needs more open source code, more model sharing, but not because it's gonna solve any one particular problem, because it can contribute to a spectrum of problems. Anything from reproducibility to compatibility to product, but there's like the world needs this to some extent. And so I think that really helped me converge on Hugging Face as being maybe the world doesn't necessarily need better social networks because a lot of people doing AI research in the context of social media or these big tech companies. Maybe the world doesn't necessarily need that, maybe not right now, maybe what the world needs is something different. And so this kind of four-part framing really helped me find meaning in my career and my life in general, trying to find all these four elements.
What other examples or applications do you find and see potential meaning in AI machine learning?
Sasha: I think that an often overlooked aspect is accessibility and I guess democratization, but like making AI easier for non-specialists. Because can you imagine if I don't know anyone like a journalist or a doctor or any profession you can think of could easily train or use an AI model. Because I feel like yeah, for sure we do AI in medicine and healthcare, but it's from a very AI machine learning angle. But if we had more doctors who were empowered to create more tools or any profession like a baker… I actually have a friend who has a bakery here in Montreal and he was like yeah, well can AI help me make better bread? And I was like probably, yeah. I'm sure that if you do some kind of experimentation and he's like oh, I can install a camera in my oven. And I was like oh yeah, you could do that I guess. I mean we were talking about it and you know, actually, bread is pretty fickle, you need the right humidity, and it actually takes a lot of experimentation and a lot of know-how from ‘boulangers’ [‘bakers’]. And the same thing for croissants, his croissants are so good and he's like yeah, well you need to really know the right butter, etc. And he was like I want to make an AI model that will help bake bread. And I was like I don't even know how to help you start, like where do you start doing that?
So accessibility is such an important part. For example, the internet has become so accessible nowadays. Anyone can navigate, and initially, it was a lot less so I think that AI still has some road to travel in order to become a more accessible and democratic tool.
And you've talked before about the power of data and how it's not talked about enough.
Sasha: Yeah, four or five years ago, I went to Costa Rica with my husband on a trip. We were just looking on a map and then I found this research center that was at the edge of the world. It was like being in the middle of nowhere. We had to take a car on a dirt road, then a first boat then a second boat to get there. And they're in the middle of the jungle and they essentially study the jungle and they have all these camera traps that are automatically activated, that are all over the jungle. And then every couple of days they have to hike from camera to camera to switch out the SD cards. And then they take these SD cards back to the station and then they have a laptop and they have to go through every picture it took. And of course, there are a lot of false positives because of wind or whatever, like an animal moving really fast, so there's literally maybe like 5% of actual good images. And I was like why aren't they using it to track biodiversity? And they'd no, we saw a Jaguar on blah, blah, blah at this location because they have a bunch of them.
Then they would try to track if a Jaguar or another animal got killed, if it had babies, or if it looked injured; like all of these different things. And then I was like, I'm sure a part of that could be automated, at least the filtering process of taking out the images that are essentially not useful, but they had graduate students or whatever doing it. But still, there are so many examples like this domain in all areas. And just having these little tools, I'm not saying that because I think we're not there yet, completely replacing scientists in this kind of task, but just small components that are annoying and time-consuming, then machine learning can help bridge that gap.
Wow. That is so interesting!
Sasha: It's actually really, camera trap data is a really huge part of tracking biodiversity. It's used for birds and other animals. It's used in a lot of cases and actually, there's been Kaggle competitions for the last couple of years around camera trap data. And essentially during the year, they have camera traps in different places like Kenya has a bunch and Tanzania as well. And then at the end of the year, they have this big Kaggle competition of recognizing different species of animals. Then after that they deployed the models, and then they update them every year.
So it's picking up, but there's just a lot of data, as you said. So each ecosystem is unique and so you need a model that's gonna be trained on exactly. You can't take a model from Kenya and make it work in Costa Rica, that's not gonna work. You need data, you need experts to train the model, and so there are a lot of elements that need to converge in order for you to be able to do this. Kind of like AutoTrain, Hugging Face has one, but even simpler where biodiversity researchers in Costa Rica could be like these are my images, help me figure out which ones are good quality and the types of animals that are on them. And they could just drag and drop the images like a web UI or something. And then they had this model that's like, here are the 12 images of Jaguars, this one is injured, this one has a baby, etc.
Do you have insights for teams that are trying to solve for things like this with machine learning, but just lack the necessary data?
Sasha: Yeah, I guess another anecdote, I have a lot of these anecdotes, but at some point we wanted to organize an AI for social good hackathon here in Montreal like three or three or four years ago. And then we were gonna contact all these NGOs, like soup kitchens, homeless shelters in Montreal. And we started going to these places and then we're like okay, where's your data? And they're like, “What data?” I'm like, “Well don't you keep track of how many people you have in your homeless shelter or if they come back,” and they're like “No.” And then they're like, “But on the other hand, we have these problems of either people disappearing and we don't know where they are or people staying for a long time. And then at a certain point we're supposed to not let them stand.” They had a lot of issues, for example, in the food kitchen, they had a lot of wasted food because they had trouble predicting how many people would arrive. And sometimes they're like yeah, we noticed that in October, usually there are fewer people, but we don't really have any data to support that.
So we completely canceled the hackathon, then instead we did, I think we call them data literacy or digital literacy workshops. So essentially we went to these places if they were interested and we gave one or two-hour workshops about how to use a spreadsheet and figure out what they wanted to track. Because sometimes they didn't even know what kind of things they wanted to save or wanted to really have a trace of. So we did a couple of them in some places like we would come back every couple of months and check in. And then a year later we had a couple, especially a food kitchen, we actually managed to make a connection between them, and I don't remember what the company name was anymore, but they essentially did this supply chain management software thing. And so the kitchen was actually able to implement a system where they would track like we got 10 pounds of tomatoes, this many people showed up today, and this is the waste of food we have. Then a year later we were able to do a hackathon to help them reduce food waste.
So that was really cool because we really saw a year and some before they had no trace of anything, they just had intuitions, which were useful, but weren't formal. And then a year later we were able to get data and integrate it into their app, and then they would have a thing saying be careful, your tomatoes are gonna go bad soon because it's been three days since you had them. Or in cases where it's like pasta, it would be six months or a year, and so we implemented a system that would actually give alerts to them. And it was super simple in terms of technology, there was not even much AI in there, but just something that would help them keep track of different categories of food. And so it was a really interesting experience because I realized that yeah, you can come in and be like we're gonna help you do whatever, but if you don't have much data, what are you gonna do?
Exactly, that's so interesting. That's so amazing that you were able to jump in there and provide that first step; the educational piece of that puzzle to get them set up on something like that.
Sasha: Yeah, it's been a while since I organized any hackathons. But I think these community involvement events are really important because they help people learn stuff like we learn that you can't just like barge in and use AI, digital literacy is so much more important and they just never really put the effort into collecting the data, even if they needed it. Or they didn't know what could be done and things like that. So taking this effort or five steps back and helping improve tech skills, generally speaking, is a really useful contribution that people don't really realize is an option, I guess.
What industries are you most excited to see machine learning be applied to?
Sasha: Climate change! Yeah, the environment is kind of my number one. Education has always been something that I've really been interested in and I've kind of always been waiting. I did my Ph.D. in education and AI, like how AI can be used in education. I keep waiting for it to finally hit a certain peak, but I guess there are a lot of contextual elements and stuff like that, but I think AI, machine learning, and education can be used in so many different ways.
For example, what I was working on during my Ph.D. was how to help pick activities, like learning activities and exercises that are best suited for learners. Instead of giving all kids or adults or whatever the same exercise to help them focus on their weak knowledge points, weak skills, and focusing on those. So instead of like a one size fits all approach. And not replacing the teacher, but tutoring more, like okay, you learn a concept in school, and help you work on it. And you have someone figure this one out really fast and they don't need those exercises, but someone else could need more time to practice. And I think that there is so much that can be done, but I still don't see it really being used, but I think it's potentially really impactful.
All right, so we're going to dive into rapid-fire questions. If you could go back and do one thing differently at the start of your machine learning career, what would it be?
Sasha: I would spend more time focusing on math. So as I said, my parents are mathematicians and they would always give me extra math exercises. And they would always be like math is universal, math, math, math. So when you get force-fed things in your childhood, you don't necessarily appreciate them later, and so I was like no, languages. And so for a good part of my university studies, I was like no math, only humanities. And so I feel like if I had been a bit more open from the beginning and realized the potential of math, even in linguistics or a lot of things, I think I would've come to where I'm at much faster than spending three years being like no math, no math.
I remember in grade 12, my final year of high school, my parents made me sign up for a math competition, like an Olympiad and I won it. Then I remember I had a medal and I put it on my mom and I'm like “Now leave me alone, I'm not gonna do any more math in my life.” And she was like “Yeah, yeah.” And then after that, when I was picking my Ph.D. program, she's like “Oh I see there are math classes, eh? because you're doing machine learning, eh?”, and I was like “No,” but yeah, I should have gotten over my initial distaste for math a lot quicker.
That's so funny, and it’s interesting to hear that because I often hear people say you need to know less and less math, the more advanced some of these ML libraries and programs get.
Sasha: Definitely, but I think having a good base, I'm not saying you have to be a super genius, but having this intuition. Like when I was working with Yoshua for example, he's a total math genius and just the facility of interpreting results or understanding behaviors of a machine learning model just because math is so second nature. Whereas for me I have to be like, okay, so I'm gonna write this equation with the loss function. I'm gonna try to understand the consequences, etc., and it's a bit less automatic, but it's a skill that you can develop. It's not necessarily theoretical, it could also be experimental knowledge. But just having this really solid math background helps you get there quicker, you couldn't really skip a few steps.
That was brilliant. And you can ask your parents for help?
Sasha: No, I refuse to ask my parents for help, no way. Plus since they're like theoretical mathematicians, they think machine learning is just for people who aren't good at math and who are lazy or whatever. And so depending on whatever area you're in, there's pure mathematicians, theoretical mathematics, applied mathematicians, there's like statisticians, and there are all these different camps.
And so I remember my little brother also was thinking of going to machine learning, and my dad was like no, stay in theoretical math, that's where all the geniuses are. He was like “No, machine learning is where math goes to die,” and I was like “Dad, I’m here!” And he was like “Well I'd rather your brother stayed in something more refined,” and I was like “That's not fair.”
So yeah, there are a lot of empirical aspects in machine learning, and a lot of trial and error, like you're tuning hyperparameters and you don't really know why. And so I think formal mathematicians, unless there's like a formula, they don't think ML is real or legit.
So besides maybe a mathematical foundation, what advice would you give to someone looking to get into machine learning?
Sasha: I think getting your hands dirty and starting out with I don't know, Jupyter Notebooks or coding exercises, things like that. Especially if you do have specific angles or problems you want to get into or just ideas in general, and so starting to try. I remember I did a summer school in machine learning when I was at the beginning of my Ph.D., I think. And then it was really interesting, but then all these examples were so disconnected. I don't remember what the data was, like cats versus dogs, I don't know, but like, why am I gonna use that? And then they're like part of the exercise was to find something that you want to use, like a classifier essentially to do.
Then I remember I got pictures of flowers or something, and I got super into it. I was like yeah, see, it confuses this flower and that flower because they're kind of similar. I understand I need more images, and I got super into it and that's when it clicked in my head, it's not only this super abstract classification. Or like oh yeah, I remember we were using this data app called MNIST which is super popular because it's like handwritten digits and they're really small, and the network goes fast. So people use it a lot in the beginning of machine learning courses. And I was like who cares, I don't want to classify digits, like whatever, right? And then when they let us pick our own images, all of a sudden it gets a lot more personal, interesting, and captivating. So I think that if people are stuck in a rut, they can really focus on things that interest them. For example, get some climate change data and start playing around with it and it really makes the process more pleasant.
I love that, find something that you're interested in.
Sasha: Exactly. And one of my favorite projects I worked on was classifying butterflies. We trained neural networks to classify butterflies based on pictures people took and it was so much fun. You learn so much, and then you're also solving a problem that you understand how it's gonna be used, and so it was such a great thing to be involved in. And I wish that everyone had found this kind of interest in the work they do because you really feel like you're making a difference, and it's cool, it's fun and it's interesting, and you want to do more. For example, this project was done in partnership with the Montreal insectarium, which is a museum for insects. And I kept in touch with a lot of these people and then they just renovated the insectarium and they're opening it after like three years of renovation this weekend.
They also invited me and my family to the opening, and I'm so excited to go there. You could actually handle insects, they’re going to have stick bugs, and they're gonna have a big greenhouse where there are butterflies everywhere. And in that greenhouse, I mean you have to install the app, but you can take pictures of butterflies, then it uses our AI network to identify them. And I'm so excited to go there to use the app and to see my kids using it and to see this whole thing. Because of the old version, they would give you this little pamphlet with pictures of butterflies and you have to go find them. I just can't wait to see the difference between that static representation and this actual app that you could use to take pictures of butterflies.
Oh my gosh. And how cool to see something that you created being used like that.
Sasha: Exactly. And even if it's not like fighting climate change, I think it can make a big difference in helping people appreciate nature and biodiversity and taking things from something that's so abstract and two-dimensional to something that you can really get involved in and take pictures of. I think that makes a huge difference in terms of our perception and our connection. It helps you make a connection between yourself and nature, for example.
So should people be afraid of AI taking over the world?
Sasha: I think that we're really far from it. I guess it depends on what you mean by taking over the world, but I think that we should be a lot more mindful of what's going on right now. Instead of thinking to the future and being like oh terminator, whatever, and to kind of be aware of how AI's being used in our phones and our lives, and to be more cognizant of that.
Technology or events in general, we have more influence on them than we think by using Alexa, for example, we're giving agency, we're giving not only material or funds to this technology. And we can also participate in it, for example, oh well I'm gonna opt out of my data being used for whatever if I am using this technology. Or I'm gonna read the fine print and figure out what it is that AI is doing in this case, and being more involved in general.
So I think that people are really seeing AI as a very distant potential mega threat, but it's actually a current threat, but on a different scale. It's like a different perception. It's like instead of thinking of this AGI or whatever, start thinking about the small things in our lives that AI is being used for, and then engage with them. And then there's gonna be less chance that AGI is gonna take over the world if you make the more mindful choices about data sharing, about consent, about using technology in certain ways. Like if you find out that your police force in your city is using facial recognition technology, you can speak up about that. That's part of your rights as a citizen in many places. And so it's by engaging yourself, you can have an influence on the future by engaging in the present.
What are you interested in right now? It could be anything, a movie, a recipe, a podcast, etc.?
Sasha: So during the pandemic, or the lockdowns and stuff like that, I got super into plants. I bought so many plants and now we're preparing a garden with my children. So this is the first time I've done this, we've planted seeds like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. I usually just buy them at the groceries when they're already ready, but this time around I was like, no, I want to teach my kids. But I also want to learn what the whole process is. And so we planted them maybe 10 days ago and they're starting to grow. And we're watering them every day, and I think that this is also part of this process of learning more about nature and the conditions that can help plants thrive and stuff like that. So last summer already, we built not just a square essentially that we fill in with dirt, but this year we're trying to make it better. I want to have several levels and stuff like that, so I'm really looking forward to learning more about growing your own food.
That is so cool. I feel like that's such a grounding activity.
Sasha: Yeah, and it's like the polar opposite of what I do. It's great not doing something on my computer, but just going outside and having dirty fingernails. I remember being like who would want to do gardening, it’s so boring, now I'm super into gardening. I can't wait for the weekend to go gardening.
Yeah, that's great. There's something so rewarding about creating something that you can see touch, feel, and smell as opposed to pushing pixels.
Sasha: Exactly, sometimes you spend a whole day grappling with this program that has bugs in it and it's not working. You're so frustrating, and then you go outside and you're like, but I have cherry tomatoes, it's all good.
What are some of your favorite machine learning papers?
Sasha: My favorite currently, papers by a researcher or by Abeba Birhane who's a researcher in AI ethics. It's like a completely different way of looking at things. So for example, she wrote a paper that just got accepted to FAcct, which is fairness in ethics conference in AI. Which was about values and how the way we do machine learning research is actually driven by the things that we value and the things that, for example, if I value a network that has high accuracy, for example, performance, I might be less willing to focus on efficiency. So for example, I'll train a model for a long time, just because I want it to be really accurate. Or like if I want to have something new, like this novelty value, I'm not gonna read the literature and see what people have been doing for whatever 10 years, I'm gonna be like I'm gonna reinvent this.
So she and her co-authors write this really interesting paper about the connection between values that are theoretical, like a kind of metaphysical, and the way that they're instantiated in machine learning. And I found that it was really interesting because typically we don't see it that way. Typically it's like oh, well we have to establish state-of-the-art, we have to establish accuracy and do this and that, and then like site-related work, but it's like a checkbox, you just have to do it. And then they think a lot more in-depth about why we're doing this, and then what are some ultra ways of doing things. For example, doing a trade off between efficiency and accuracy, like if you have a model that's slightly less accurate, but that's a lot more efficient and trains faster, that could be a good way of democratizing AI because people need less computational resources to train a model. And so there are all these different connections that they make that I find it really cool.
Wow, we'll definitely be linking to that paper as well, so people can check that out. Yeah, very cool. Anything else you'd like to share? Maybe things you're working on or that you would like people to know about?
Sasha: Yeah, something I'm working on outside of Big Science is on evaluation and how we evaluate models. Well kind of to what Ababa talks about in her paper, but even from just a pure machine learning perspective, what are the different ways that we can evaluate models and compare them on different aspects, I guess. Not only accuracy but efficiency and carbon emissions and things like that. So there's a project that started a month or ago on how to evaluate in a way that's not only performance-driven, but takes into account different aspects essentially. And I think that this has been a really overlooked aspect of machine learning, like people typically just once again and just check off like oh, you have to evaluate this and that and that, and then submit the paper. There are also these interesting trade-offs that we could be doing and things that we could be measuring that we're not.
For example, if you have a data set and you have an average accuracy, is the accuracy the same again in different subsets of the data set, like are there for example, patterns that you can pick up on that will help you improve your model, but also make it fairer? I guess the typical example is like image recognition, does it do the same in different… Well the famous Gender Shades paper about the algorithm did better on white men than African American women, but you could do that about anything. Not only gender and race, but you could do that for images, color or types of objects or angles. Like is it good for images from above or images from street level. There are all these different ways of analyzing accuracy or performance that we haven't really looked at because it's typically more time-consuming. And so we want to make tools to help people delve deeper into the results and understand their models better.
Where can people find you online?
Sasha: I'm on Twitter @SashaMTL, and that's about it. I have a website, I don't update it enough, but Twitter I think is the best.
Perfect. We can link to that too. Sasha, thank you so much for joining me today, this has been so insightful and amazing. I really appreciate it.
Sasha: Thanks, Britney.
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