A crude history of applied machine learning:

Whenever we have a low-capacity model with hand-engineered structural constraints, and replace it with a high-capacity model with simple features and few structural constraints, model quality improves [models are smaller, take less time to develop, and generalize better to unseen data].

See (in NLP): linear models replacing decision lists, Jelinek’s infamous linguists, statistical machine translation, the recent flurry of papers whose entire substance is “replace this log-linear model (a two-layer neural net) with a three-layer neural net”.

A crude history of programming languages:

Whenever we have a programming language with lots of simple constructs, and we replace them with a few high-level constructs, program quality improves [programs of equivalent complexity are shorter, take less time to develop, and are less likely to contain bugs].

First everyone stopped writing assembly, then everyone stopped writing C.1

Notice: in each case we’re moving the same slider—just moving it in different directions. Machine learning and programming language design ultimately have the same goal: making it as easy as possible for certain problem-solving machines (whether those are humans or optimization algorithms) to produce correct code according to some specification. Out in the real world, we don’t favor machine learning because it is inherently more pure or beautiful than writing code by hand—we use it because it’s effective. If somebody released a library today with a bunch of composable vision primitives, and suddenly Facebook to could solve all their image-labeling problems more effectively with interns rather than neural nets, then neural nets would be out the door tomorrow.

Actually, can we write this library now?

To be clear, I don’t mean something like OpenCV, where you take a bunch of pre-implemented models for particular tasks and then do whatever stitching-together you want in postprocessing. Instead, again, some notion of little vision primitives from which it would be possible to write a classifier as

    load(image) andThen 
      detectObjects andThen 
      orderBy(salience) andThen 
      head andThen 

or a captioner as

    load(image) andThen 
      detectObjects andThen 

or a face detector as

    load(image) andThen 
      detectObjects andThen 
      filter(name(_) == Face) andThen 

What do the functions detectObjects, describeAll, etc. look like? Current experience suggests that they should be neural nets, but neural nets of a very particular kind: rather than being trained to accomplish some particular task (like image captioning), they’re trained to be freely composable: describeAll promises to take anything “like a list of detections” (whether directly from detectObjects or subsequently filtered) and produce a string. Note in particular that the inputs and outputs to these functions are all real vectors. There is no way to structurally enforce that a thing “like a list of detections” actually has the desired semantics, and instead we rely entirely on the training procedure.

In current real-world implementations, there’s a notion of layers as modular, pre-specified units, but networks as monolithic models customized for specific tasks (and requiring end-to-end training). Once we move to modular networks, though, we can start to perform tasks for which no training data exists. For example, “write a caption about the people in this image”:

    load(image) andThen 
      detectObjects andThen 
      filter(name(_) == Face) 
      andThen describeAll

using the same primitives specified above.

Steps we are already taking in this direction: the fact that people use a prefix of an image classification network to initialize models for basically every other vision task; the fact that “attention” is suddenly being treated as a primitive in model descriptions even though it’s a complicated sequence of operations for combining multiple layers. Roger Grosse’s beautiful paper on grammars over matrix factorization models also kind of looks like this, and Christopher Olah has a discussion of the type-theoretic niceties of neural nets understood as collections of reusable modules (though to me this seems largely secondary to the practical question of what these types are).

To bring this back to the earlier programming language discussion, we observe that:

  1. It’s hard for a person to write down a person-detector by hand, but easy for a neural net.

  2. Given appropriate functional vision primitives, it’s easy for a person to write down a person describer. But training a neural net to do this from scratch requires a lot of examples of people descriptions to do this. (We might then say it’s “easy” for people but “hard” for a neural net.)

To take this yet a step further, we can note that there are lots of machine learning techniques that are more human-like than neural-net-like, in the sense that they do well with tiny data sets and a good pre-specified inventory of primitives (e.g. program induction, semantic parsing). If we really just care about minimal human intervention, we can figure out our vision primitives and then hand them off to a machine learning subsystem of an entirely different kind.

So let’s write this library! There are research questions here: First, what is the right set of functional primitives to give people (or models for program induction)? Next, can these shared representations actually be learned? How do we find parameter settings for these modules using the kinds of labeled data currently available?

Disclosure: I already have a model like this working on a bunch of simple question-answering tasks about images—I think it’s a really exciting proof-of-concept, and I’ll hopefully be able to show it off soon. But it’s not a comprehensive solution (esp. if we want to interface between vision / language / control applications), and I think there’s a really interesting systems problem here too.


  1. Obviously this is a gross overstatement, since lots of people do continue to write assembly and C. But I think it’s less controversial to say that fewer people write in low-level languages, and that it’s harder to do so correctly.