Comments on the Editorial of “Machine Learning For Science and Society” issue

For whatever reason, I am more fascinated by the applied aspects of any research and Machine Learning (ML) is not an exception. While I use machine learning approaches in my work and studied basics during my masters (.. and on and off during my PhD now), I never found much information on what happens to all the hundreds of new algorithms proposed every year. How many of them actually get used by non-ML researchers working on some other problem? How many of them get used by others who want to solve some real-world problems?

I attended the Machine learning summer school in 2013, where, for two weeks, I was fortunate enough to listen to some of the best researchers in the field speak about ML in general and their work in particular. However, I got a feeling that the community is not so keen on a reality check about the applicability of these algorithms. So, basically, the questions remained.

Machine learning that matters” (Kiri Wagstaff, 2012) is an article I keep thinking about whenever this sort of discussion comes up with fellow grad-students. (My thoughts on it here). In the past few days, there have been a lot of short online/offline discussions about how an effort to do more evaluation on real-world scenarios/datasets is perceived by reviewers in various academic conferences (disclaimer: these discussions are not exclusively about ML but some of the people in these discussions happen to be grad-students working in ML).
We, with our own shortcomings and limitations drew some conclusions (which are not of interest to anyone perhaps) and I was reminded of another inspiring article that I thought about several times in the past few months.

The Article: Machine learning for science and society (Editorial)
Authors: Cynthia Rudin and Kiri L. Wagstaff
Details: Machine Learning (2014) 95:1–9
Url here

This article is an editorial for a special issue of Machine Learning Journal called “Machine Learning For Science and Society“. The issue is a collection of research papers that tackle some real life problems ranging from water pipe condition assessment to online-advertising through ML based approaches. While I did not go through all the papers in this edition yet, I think the editorial is worth a read to any person having a remote curiosity about the phrase “Machine Learning”.

It discusses the issues that arise when you decide to study the real-life impact of ML- What exactly counts as evaluation from the applied perspective? How much of this evaluation differs based on the application domain? How do domain experts see ML – do they look for a great model or a good model that is interpretable? How does the ML community see such research? What is ML good for? What is the need for this special focused issue at all? etc.,

I will not go on and on like this, but I would like to quote a few things from the paper, hoping its not a copyright violation.

The abstract:

“The special issue on “Machine Learning for Science and Society” showcases machine learning work with influence on our current and future society. These papers addressseveral key problems such as how we perform repairs on critical infrastructure, how we predict severe weather and aviation turbulence, how we conduct tax audits, whether we can detect privacy breaches in access to healthcare data, and how we link individuals across census data sets for new insights into population changes. In this introduction, we discuss the need for such a special issue within the context of our field and its relationship to the broader world. In the era of “big data,” there is a need for machine learning to address important large-scale applied problems, yet it is difficult to find top venues in machine learning where such work is encouraged. We discuss the ramifications of this contradictory situation and encourage further discussion on the best strategy that we as a field may adopt. We also summarize key lessons learned from individual papers in the special issue so that the community as a whole can benefit.”

Then, the four points starting from: “If applied research is not considered publishable in top ML venues, our field faces the following disadvantages:”

1. “We lose the flow of applied problems necessary for stimulating relevant theoretical work ….”
2. “We further exacerbate the gap between theoretical work and practice. …”
3. “We may prevent truly new applications of ML to be published in top venues at all (ML or not). …”
4. “We strongly discourage applied research by machine learning professionals. … “

(Read the relevant section in the paper for details.)

The paragraph that followed, where examples of a few applications of ML were mentioned:

“The editors of this special issue have worked on both theoretical and applied topics, where the applied topics between us include criminology (Wang et al. 2013), crop yield prediction (Wagstaff et al. 2008), the energy grid (Rudin et al. 2010, 2012), healthcare (Letham et al. 2013b; McCormick et al. 2012), information retrieval (Letham et al. 2013a), interpretable models (Letham et al. 2013b; McCormick et al. 2012; Ustun et al. 2013), robotic space exploration (Castano et al. 2007; Wagstaff and Bornstein 2009; Wagstaff et al. 2013b), and scientific discovery (Wagstaff et al. 2013a).”

Last, but not the least, the comments on inter-disciplinary research just had such an amount of resounding truth in them that I put the quote up in my room and a few others did the same in the inter-disciplinary grad school I am a part of. 🙂

“..for a true interdisciplinary collaboration, both sides need to understand each other’s specialized terminology and together develop the definition of success for the project. We ourselves must be willing to acquire at least apprentice-level expertise in the domain at hand to develop the data and knowledge discovery process necessary for achieving success. ”

This has been one of those articles which I thought about again and again… kept recommending to people working in areas as diverse as psychology, sociology, computer science etc., to people who are not into academic research at all!🙂 (I wonder what these people think of me for sending the “seemingly unrelated” article to read though.)

*****
P.S.: It so happens that an ML article inspired me to write this post. But, on a personal front, the questions posed in the first paragraph remain the same even for my own field of research – Computational Linguistics and perhaps to any other field too.

P.S. 2: This does not mean I have some fantastic solution to solve the dilemmas of all senior researchers and grad students who are into inter-disciplinary and/or applied research and at the same time don’t want to perish since they can’t publish in the conferences/journals of their main field.

Published in: on July 8, 2014 at 3:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

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