In recent years, machine learning technology and the business solutions it enables has developed into a big business in and of itself. According to the industry analysts at IDC, spending on ML and AI technology is set to grow to almost $98 billion per year by 2023. In practical terms, that figure represents a business environment where ML technology has become a key priority for companies of every kind.
That doesn’t mean that the path to adopting ML technology is easy for businesses. Far from it. In fact, survey data seems to indicate that businesses are still struggling to get their machine learning efforts up and running. According to one such survey, it currently takes the average business as many as 90 days to deploy a single machine learning model. For 20% of businesses, that number is even higher.
From the data, it seems clear that something is missing in the methodologies that most companies rely on to make meaningful use of machine learning in their business workflows. A closer look at the situation reveals that the vast majority of data workers (analysts, data scientists, etc.) spend an inordinate amount of time on infrastructure work – and not on creating and refining machine learning models.
Streamlining the ML Adoption Process
To fix that problem, businesses need to turn to another growing area of technology: automation. By leveraging the latest in automation technology, it’s now possible to build an automated machine learning pipeline (AutoML pipeline) that cuts down on the repetitive tasks that slow down ML deployments and lets data workers get back to the work they were hired to do. With the right customized solution in place, a business’s ML team can:
- Reduce the time spent on data collection, cleaning, and ingestion
- Minimize human errors in the development of ML models
- Decentralize the ML development process to create an ML-as-a-service model with increased accessibility for all business stakeholders
In short, an AutoML pipeline turns the high-effort functions of the ML development process into quick, self-adjusting steps handled exclusively by machines. In some use cases, an AutoML pipeline can even allow non-technical stakeholders to self-create ML solutions tailored to specific business use cases with no expert help required. In that way, it can cut ML costs, shorten deployment time, and allow data scientists to focus on tackling more complex modelling work to develop custom ML solutions that are still outside the scope of available automation techniques.
The Parts of an AutoML Pipeline
Although the frameworks and tools used to create an AutoML pipeline can vary, they all contain elements that conform to the following areas:
- Data Preprocessing – Taking available business data from a variety of sources, cleaning it, standardizing it, and conducting missing value imputation
- Feature Engineering – Identifying features in the raw data set to create hypotheses for the model to base predictions on
- Model Selection – Choosing the right ML approach or hyperparameters to produce the desired predictions
- Tuning Hyperparameters – Determining which hyperparameters help the model achieve optimal performance
As anyone familiar with ML development can tell you, the steps in the above process tend to represent the majority of the labour and time-intensive work that goes into creating a model that’s ready for real-world business use. It is also in those steps where the lion’s share of business ML budgets get consumed, and where most of the typical delays occur.
The Limitations and Considerations for Using AutoML
Given the scope of the work that can now become part of an AutoML pipeline, it’s tempting to imagine it as a panacea – something that will allow a business to reduce its reliance on data scientists going forward. Right now, though, the technology can’t do that. At this stage, AutoML technology is still best used as a tool to augment the productivity of business data teams, not to supplant them altogether.
To that end, there are some considerations that businesses using AutoML will need to keep in mind to make sure they get reliable, repeatable, and value-generating results, including:
- Transparency – Businesses must establish proper vetting procedures to make sure they understand the models created by their AutoML pipeline, so they can explain why it’s making the choices or predictions it’s making. In some industries, such as in medicine or finance, this could even fall under relevant regulatory requirements.
- Extensibility – Making sure the AutoML framework may be expanded and modified to suit changing business needs or to tackle new challenges as they arise.
- Monitoring and Maintenance – Since today’s AutoML technology isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it proposition, it’s important to establish processes for the monitoring and maintenance of the deployment so it can continue to produce useful and reliable ML models.
The Bottom Line
As it stands today, the convergence of automation and machine learning holds the promise of delivering ML models at scale for businesses, which would greatly speed up the adoption of the technology and lower barriers to entry for those who have yet to embrace it. On the whole, that’s great news both for the businesses that will benefit from increased access to ML technology, as well as for the legions of data professionals tasked with making it all work.
It’s important to note, of course, that complete end-to-end ML automation with no human intervention is still a long way off. While businesses should absolutely explore building an automated machine learning pipeline to speed up development time in their data operations, they shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they still need plenty of high-skilled data scientists and analysts on their teams. It’s those specialists that can make appropriate and productive use of the technology. Without them, an AutoML pipeline would accomplish little more than telling the business what it wants to hear.
The good news is that the AutoML tools that exist right now are sufficient to alleviate many of the real-world problems businesses face in their road to ML adoption. As they become more commonplace, there’s little doubt that the lead time to deploy machine learning models is going to shrink correspondingly – and that businesses will enjoy higher ROI and enhanced outcomes as a result.