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Friday, March 09, 2018

Data-Driven Programming

Five years ago I posted about Flash Fill, a then new Microsoft Excel feature that would reformat data based on examples. I just checked the latest version of Excel and Flash Fill is still there just working by making suggestions when appropriate. It uses a programming language approach finding the simplest string manipulation program consistent with the examples.

I loved the idea of example-based programming but it did seem pretty limited at the time. With the machine learning revolution we've gone full circle. We solve a number of problems with data and examples alone: voice recognition, face recognition, spam detection, playing Chess and Go from scratch in ways we wouldn't even know how to program.

That's not completely true: Designing a good machine learning program requires programming to get data in a good format and creating the right network structure to learn is still considerably an art. But the real magic does happen when the deep learning process happens creating a neural net that works well in ways we can't fully understand even when we look at the final network produced.

Now "it's all about the data". This hit me when I got an email invitation for the Uber visa card. Unlike other branded cards it gives you no particular discounts or rewards for Uber. Rather it gives you significant cash back for dining and travel, in other words for giving Uber the data about you that can make Uber itself more valuable to you.

Nothing in this post should be new to you readers. But every now and then just take a breadth and realize who much our notions of computing and data have changed over even the past five years.

Programmers aren't going away. Machine learning works well for things humans do well instinctively. But for actual number crunching, simulations and manipulation, even what Flash Fill does, machine learning has much more to do.

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