The Last 5 Years In Deep Learning The Last 5 Years In Deep Learning
Introduction As we’re nearing the end of 2017 (and coincidentally the first day of NIPS 2017), we’ve come to the 5 year... The Last 5 Years In Deep Learning


As we’re nearing the end of 2017 (and coincidentally the first day of NIPS 2017), we’ve come to the 5 year landmark of deep learning really starting to hit the mainstream. For me, I think of AlexNet and the 2012 Imagenet competition as the coming out party (although researchers have definitely been working in this field for quite a bit longer).

5 years. Think about that. It’s been just 5 years and we’ve absolutely revolutionized the way we look at the capabilities of machines, the way we build software (Software 2.0), and the ways we think about creating products and companies (Just ask any VC or startup founder). Tasks that seemed impossible just a decade ago have become tractable, granted you have the appropriate labeled dataset and compute power of course.

In this post, we’ll overview the last couple years in deep learning, focusing on industry applications, and end with a discussion on what the future may hold.

Why the Hype over DL

(Yeah I know, most of us don’t need a graph to tell us that deep learning is kind of a buzz word right now)

I’m sure we’ve all heard our fair share of big statements on the type of impact that AI (specifically ML and more specifically DL) will have.

And yes, while I’m sure we’ve all learned to treat statements like “I used a deep neural network to solve X” with some scrutiny, there’s no denying that the advent of deep learning has fundamentally changed the way we approach creating intelligent systems.

So what is it about deep learning that has made it the centerpiece of all tech buzzwords? In my opinion, it comes down to the ability for deep learning models to perform analysis of forms of data such as speech, text, and images through large labeled datasets, enormous compute power, and effective network architectures.

Speech. Text. Images. Think about those 3 forms of data. Traditionally, these were forms of data that our computer systems didn’t handle well. You could ask a computer to multiply 34,632 by 68,821 and that would be a piece of cake. But, if you asked that same computer to determine whether an image contains a dog or a cat, it was (and still sometimes is) a very difficult task.

As humans, our lives revolve around these 3 data forms. We communicate to each other every day through speech, we convey ideas through text, and we illustrate our world through images. If our end goal is to build intelligent AI systems, being able to analyze speech, text, and images is a crucial requirement.

While I wouldn’t say that deep learning is necessarily the right path to that type of artificial general intelligence (AGI) – I’m hesitant about whether compute + data + supervised learning can work for all tasks – I still believe it’s an incredibly transformative technology that is deserving of the hype it receives. Let’s take a look at a couple fields and look at how they’ve been impacted by DL.

Image Processing

Since we mentioned AlexNet at the beginning of the post, I think it’s only fair that we start with image processing tasks. I think most people would agree that image processing is the field that has been most successfully impacted by deep learning. For most image related tasks, feature extraction methods like SIFT and HOG are being discarded in favor of deep learning models called convolutional neural networks. These are special kinds of neural networks that use learnable convolutional filters to process image data.

Impact on Industry

I want you to think about the biggest companies and hottest startups in tech today. Think about the Big 5, think about companies whose products you use everyday, think about startups that have IPO’d, the ones that probably shouldn’t have, and write them down. Here’s my quick list.

Now, take a highlighter and highlight the ones that have to process some sort of image related data.

Images are such a key part of their products and services that the ability to create deep learning systems to automate the analysis of this data can greatly benefit companies and their products. Let’s look at some of these companies and see how they’ve used CNNs and other DL techniques over the past few years.

  • Dropbox – Just this past year, Dropbox released a blog post that explained how they used deep learning to build an OCR pipeline used on their mobile document scanner feature. The gist of the approach was that they used one system to crop out bounding boxes of distinct words in the image, and another made up of convolutional layers and bi-directional LSTM layers to extract the text contained in the bounding box. An interesting note to make about this particular use case is the latencyrequirement that Dropbox needed. A lot of times in deep learning, a larger network will often lead to greater accuracy but can come at the cost of slower inference time. This is a tradeoff that is of key importance when thinking about using DL methods in production.
  • Google – An interesting new trend that has come up as a result of the AI revolution is the AI-as-a-service model. While smaller companies may not have the data, compute, or talent necessary to perform image processing at the scale or effectiveness of other companies, there are services like Google Cloud PlatformAmazon RekognitionClarifai, and others that offer image understanding through APIs. Google currently uses CNNs as the core component behind their Object Detection API.
  • Facebook – With over 350 million photos uploaded to Facebook each day, it’s clear that intelligent analysis of this data can be beneficial. While Facebook AI Research’s blog has posts that talk about a number of different topics, I’d like to focus on one that looks at the challenges that come with having to analyze images and videos in real-time. In the post, the authors go over how the nature of real-time processing (such as for style transfer) requires lightweight frameworks, like Caffe2Go, as well as model size optimization.
  • Snapchat – While Snap is a little bit more secretive when it comes to telling the public about their ML and Computer Vision techniques, it’s definitely clear that videos and images are essential to the core product. Face detection and filters are areas where DL approaches are possibly being utilized.
  • Pinterest – If you’ve ever used the Pinterest product, you’ll see from the very first moment you open the app that appealing to the user’s visual senses and interests is a key part of user engagement. As explained in this Medium post, Pinterest uses DL to show the user visually similar Pins to the ones they’ve already pinned to their personal boards. While the exact approach doesn’t use CNNs, we see a small neural network and an embedding Pin2Vec component used to rank the related Pins.
  • Hudl– Hudl is a Lincoln based startup that provides tools for coaches and athletes to analyze game footage. This blog postshows how they were able to use CNNs to classify points in sports videos where a specific event (such as a 3-pointer) took place.
  • Airbnb – Images may not be as core to Airbnb’s product as they might be to the products of other companies, but allowing users to upload and view images of available listings is an important part of the user experience. This blog post shows how machine learning techniques are used to classify and rank the picture quality of images that are uploaded. From a product standpoint, this can be helpful when determining which images to show the customer while they are browsing for a listing.
  • Apple – As a company that was traditionally known for its secrecy when it came to its new products and tech, it was refreshing to see that Apple started their own machine learning journal earlier this year. One of the most interesting posts was their description of using deep nets for on-device face detection. Traditional approaches to face detection, such as the Viola-Jones algorithm, have worked to some extent, but it’s interesting to see so many companies wanting to test and see if a deep learning approach can work better than current approaches (and more often than not, it does). Apple’s problem space is also unique because they care not only about low latency predictions, but also about low power consumption since all the computation for the face detection happens on-device.
  • Houzz– Houzz is a startup that offers a platform and community for interior design and decoration. They utilize DL methods for identifying unique pieces of furniture from a picture of the interior of a house. By identifying the type and brand of furniture, Houzz can then search department stores and allow you to buy the product straight from the app.

Important Research Papers

Check out this blog post and this one if you’re interested in more in-depth overviews.

  • AlexNet (2012) – Marked the coming out party for convolutional neural networks. First time that a CNN performed so well on a historically difficult ImageNet dataset.
  • ZFNet (2013) – Showed new techniques for visualizing the inner workings of CNNs.
  • OverFeat (2013) – Object localization and detection using CNNs.
  • R-CNN (2014), Fast R-CNN (2015), and Faster R-CNN (2016) – Models used for object detection tasks.
  • VGGNet (2014) – Simplicity and depth with 13 convolutional layers of 3×3 sized filters.
  • GoogLeNet/Inception (2015) – Novel Inception module that contains differently sized convolution operations as well as one maxpool.
  • ResNet (2015) – New residual block concept that has been transferred to a lot of new network architectures.
  • Mask R-CNN (2017) – Used the advancements in Faster R-CNN to perform pixel level segmentation

Natural Language Processing

When we talk about natural language processing, there are a lot of different tasks that fit under this umbrella. Question answering, machine translation, sentiment analysis, document summarization, the list goes on and on. NLP is a large and broad field that encompasses advancements in linguistics and traditional AI approaches. The application of deep learning to NLP tasks has quite a bit of success, but we also have quite some ways to go.

Impact on Industry

  • Google and Facebook – Improvements in the field of machine translation, creating systems that can translate text into other languages, have been one of the biggest success stories in DL applied to NLP. Google and Facebook have both used an approach called Neural Machine Translation to improve Google Translate and to create accurate translations of Facebook posts.
  • BaiduGoogleApple, and Amazon – The rise of conversational agents like Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assistant can be attributed to more advanced speech recognition techniques that involve deep nets. We’ve seen press releases and blog posts from BaiduGoogleApple, and Amazon. These companies all definitely have their own unique twists on their models, but the general idea of using systems with RNNs, LSTMs, Seq2Seq models, and/or CTC loss functions is applicable across the board.
  • Twitter – With about 350 million tweets sent per day, Twitter definitely has a lot of textual information to parse through. One of their recent blog posts discusses a custom neural net that determines the ranking of a set of tweets to show on a user’s feed.
  • Quora – Earlier this year, Quora released a dataset that contained question pairs, as well as labels for whether or not the two sentences in each pair are duplicates of each other. While it’s unclear what type of system Quora uses behind the scenes to address the duplicate question problem, some sort of ML (or DL) might currently be used.
  • Spotify – Typically used for image processing tasks, CNNs were the DL method of choice for Spotify’s music recommendation system (This post is a bit old by DL standards – 2014 – so it’d be interesting to find out what updates they’ve made). This system was used to augment the collaborative filtering algorithm that has traditionally been used.
  • Salesforce – In 2016, Salesforce acquired MetaMind, a startup headed by Stanford professor Richard Socher. Since then, the group has primarily been doing NLP research, helping set the stage for Einstein, one of Salesforce’s main products. One interesting feature is their text summarization capability that uses both encoder/decoder RNNs as well as reinforcement learning to summarize text articles. The group also has an active blog that is more technically oriented.

Important Papers

  • Word2Vec (2013) – First effective and scalable method of generating dense word vectors from a text corpora.
  • Seq2Seq (2014) – Deep neural net that maps sequences to other sequences. A very general approach that has served as a base for a lot of future breakthroughs in DL applied to NLP. One of the biggest subsequent breakthroughs was the attention mechanism, introduced in this paper.
  • Deep Speech (2014) – Work from authors at Baidu that illustrated the first scalable use of an end-to-end deep learning network architecture for speech recognition. See Deep Speech 2 (2015), Attention-Based SR (2015), and Deep Speech 3(2017) for advancements that largely stemmed from this paper.
  • Dynamic Memory Networks for NLP (2015) – Applied a neural network architecture to the task of question answering.
  • Neural Machine Translation (2016) – Google’s paper describing their approach to translating text from one language to another.

Reinforcement Learning

RL approaches are most commonly seen in the robotics fields, where I think the Holy Grail amounts to creating an agent or robot that is able to learn how to perform any task we want. There have been great advances, evidenced by agents that can beat Atari games and Go, but I think it’ll still be a couple years before we really see an impact on products and services that we use every day.

Impact on Industry

  • Deepmind – Similar to OpenAI, DeepMind isn’t a company in the traditional sense, but they’ve been the most instrumental in pushing RL research. From inventing DQN to creating the famous AlphaGo system, DeepMind has been a key contributor to deep RL research. You can learn more about what they’re currently working on through their blog.
  • Boston Dynamics – While it’s unclear how much deep learning is used in their systems (they seem to do a lot more feature engineering), they are a company that has made a lot of cool advances and is definitely one to keep an eye on. And honestly, I had to include them because this is just too cool.
  • OpenAI – While it’s hard to even say whether OpenAI is really part of industry or if they’re just a really well funded research lab, it’s clear that in trying to achieve their mission to “build safe AGI”, the road involves research in RL. They frequently update their blog where they talk about new advancements in self-playpolicy optimization, and multiagent cooperation.
  • Bonsai – Bonsai is a Berkeley based startup that wants to abstract away the complexity of building AI systems by creating a platform that businesses can use to create and deploy ML models (with a focus on RL). They also have an active blog that has interesting pieces on RL, industrial AI, and interpretability.

The next ‘Important Papers’ section is interesting to me because RL powered by deep learning is still in its infancy. Reinforcement learning, in general, is difficult. Getting an agent to do what you want it to do in an unknown environment with continuous state and action spaces is not a trivial task by any stretch. While the advancements shown through Atari games and AlphaGo are fantastic breakthroughs, it’s been difficult to see how much of what we’ve learned through current advancements can be transferred to tasks that can be useful in industry.

So, why is this transfer difficult? Well, this is in part because of the way that board games and computer games are structured. In Atari games and Go, the agent is making decisions and actions in a space where the environment is deterministic. We know exactly how the board state will change when the agent decides to place a white stone on row 20, column 13. With a lot of RL tasks in the real world, the environments are a little more difficult. The action space and state space for the agent can be continuous and there is almost an unlimited amount of noise and variability that the agent will encounter. For those interested, check out Andrej Karpathy’s blog post on this distinction.

The difficulties with handling partially observed and indeterministic environments, with continuous action and state spaces makes RL a problem that even DL methods have had trouble with. It’ll be interesting to see how the field progresses. Here are a couple of past advancements.

Important Papers

Check out this blog post if you’re interested in more in depth overviews.

  • Atari with DQN (2013) and subsequent Nature Paper (2015) – First successful use of deep learning in RL. Introduced DQN (Deep Q-Network), which is an end to end RL agent that uses a large neural net to process game states and choose appropriate actions.
  • Asynchronous Methods for Deep RL (2016) – Introduced the A3C algorithm that expanded and improved upon on DQN.
  • AlphaGo (2016) – Described the approach used to create the AlphaGo system that beat Lee Sedol in the summer of 2016. Monte Carlo Tree Search and DNNs were the primary components in the system.
  • AlphaGo Zero (2017) – The latest improvement on AlphaGo, which showed an interesting random play/starting from scratch approach.

Other Important Papers

I don’t think I can do a deep learning overview blog post justice without finding some way to include these next research papers. Even though we can’t point to unique use cases in industry, the following contributions have been critical in pushing state of the art deep learning.

Adit Deshpande

Adit Deshpande

I'm a second year undergraduate student currently studying at UCLA. I'm majoring in computer science while also pursuing a minor in Bioinformatics. I've had two research internships in my career, one at Boston University and one at the U.S Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C.. I'm passionate about applying my knowledge of computer science and machine learning to areas in healthcare where we can really engineer better solutions for helping doctors and taking care of patients.