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On Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning. Interview with Pedro Domingos

by Roberto V. Zicari on June 18, 2018

“Debugging AI systems is harder than debugging traditional ones, but not impossible. Mainly it requires a different mindset, that allows for nondeterminism and a partial understanding of what’s going on. Is the problem in the data, the system, or in how the system is being applied to the data? Debugging an AI is more like domesticating an animal than debugging a program.”– Pedro Domingos.

I have interviewed Pedro Domingos, professor of computer science at the University of Washington and the author of The Master Algorithm, a bestselling introduction to machine learning for non-specialists. We talked about various topics related to Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning.


Q1. What’s the difference between Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning?

Pedro Domingos: The goal of AI is to get computers to do things that in the past have required human intelligence: commonsense reasoning, problem-solving, planning, decision-making, vision, speech and language understanding, and so on. Machine learning is the subfield of AI that deals with a particularly important ability: learning. Just as in humans the ability to learn underpins all else, so machine learning is behind the growing successes of AI.
Deep learning is a specific type of machine learning loosely based on emulating the brain. Technically, it refers to learning neural networks with many hidden layers, but these days it’s used to refer to all neural networks.

Q2. Several AI scientists around the world would like to make computers learn so much about the world, so rapidly and flexibly, as humans (or even more). How can learned results by machines be physically plausible or be made understandable by us?

Pedro Domingos: The results can be in the form of “if . . . then” rules, decision trees, or other representations that are easy for humans to understand. Some types of models can be visualized. Neural networks are opaque, but other types of model don’t have to be.

Q3. It seems no one really knows how the most advanced AI algorithms do what they do. Why?

Pedro Domingos: Since the algorithms learn from data, it’s not as easy to understand what they do as it would be if they were programmed by us, like traditional algorithms. But that’s the essence of machine learning: that it can go beyond our knowledge to discover new things. A phenomenon may be more complex than a human can understand, but not more complex than a computer can understand. And in many cases we also don’t know what humans do: for example, we know how to drive a car, but we don’t know how to program a car to drive itself. But with machine learning the car can learn to drive by watching video of humans drive.

Q4. That could be a problem. Do you agree?

Pedro Domingos: It’s a disadvantage, but how much of a problem it is depends on the application. If an AI algorithm that predicts the stock market consistently makes money, the fact that it can’t explain how it did it is something investors can live with. But in areas where decisions must be justified, some learning algorithms can’t be used, or at least their results have to be post-processed to give explanations (and there’s lots of research on this).

Q5. Let`s consider an autonomous car that relies entirely on an algorithm that had taught itself to drive by watching a human do it. What if one day the car crashed into a tree, or even worst killed a pedestrian?

Pedro Domingos: If the learning took place before the car was delivered to the customer, the car’s manufacturer would be liable, just as with any other machinery. The more interesting problem is if the car learned from its driver. Did the driver set a bad example, or did the car not learn properly?

Q6. Would it be possible to create some sort of “AI-debugger” that let you see what the code does while making a decision?

Pedro Domingos: Yes, and many researchers are hard at work on this problem. Debugging AI systems is harder than debugging traditional ones, but not impossible. Mainly it requires a different mindset, that allows for nondeterminism and a partial understanding of what’s going on. Is the problem in the data, the system, or in how the system is being applied to the data? Debugging an AI is more like domesticating an animal than debugging a program.

Q7. How can computers learn together with us still in the loop?

Pedro Domingos: In so-called online learning, the system is continually learning and performing, like humans. And in mixed-initiative learning, the human may deliberately teach something to the computer, the computer may ask the human a question, and so on. These types of learning are not widespread in industry yet, but they exist in the lab, and they’re coming.

Q8. Professional codes of ethics do little to change peoples’ behaviour. How is it possible to define incentives for using an ethical approach to software development, especially in the area of AI?

Pedro Domingos: I think ethical software development for AI is not fundamentally different from ethical software development in general. The interesting new question is: when AIs learn by themselves, how do we keep them from gowing astray? Fixed rules of ethics, like Asimov’s three laws of robotics, are too rigid and fail easily. (That’s what his robot stories were about.) But if we just let machines learn ethics by observing and emulating us, they will learn to do lots of unethical things. So maybe AI will force us to confront what we really mean by ethics before we can decide how we want AIs to be ethical.

Q9. Who will control in the future the Algorithms and Big Data that drive AI?

Pedro Domingos: It should be all of us. Right now it is mainly the companies that have lots of data and sophisticated machine learning systems, but all of us – as citizens and professionals and in our personal lives – should become aware of what AI is and what we can do with it. That’s why I wrote “The Master Algorithm”: so everyone can understand machine learning well enough to make the best use of it. How can I use AI to do my job better, to find the things I need, to build a better society? Just like driving a car does not require knowing how the engine works, but it does require knowing how to use the steering wheel and pedals, everyone needs to know how to control an AI system, and to have AIs that work for them and not for others, just like they have cars and TVs that work for them.

Q10. What are your current research projects?

Pedro Domingos: Today’s machine learning algorithms are still very limited compared to humans. In particular, they’re not able to generalize very far from the data.
A robot can learn to pick up a bottle in a hundred trials, but if it then needs to pick up a cup it has to start again from scratch. In contrast, a three-year-old can effortlessly pick anything up.
So I’m working on a new machine learning paradigm, called symmetry-based learning, where the machine learns individual transformations from data that preserve the essential properties of an object, and can then compose the transformations in many different ways to generalize very far from the data. For example, if I rotate a cup it’s still the same cup, and if I replace a word by a synonym in a sentence the meaning of the sentence is unchanged. By composing transformations like this I can arrive at a picture or a sentence that looks nothing like the original, but still means the same.
It’s called symmetry-based learning because the theoretical framework to do this comes from symmetry group theory, an area of mathematics that is also the foundation of modern physics.

Pedro Domingos is a professor of computer science at the University of Washington and the author of “The Master Algorithm”, a bestselling introduction to machine learning for non-specialists.
He is a winner of the SIGKDD Innovation Award, the highest honour in data science, and a Fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. He has received a Fulbright Scholarship, a Sloan Fellowship, the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award, and numerous best paper awards.
He received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Irvine and is the author or co-author of over 200 technical publications. He has held visiting positions at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and MIT. He co-founded the International Machine Learning Society in 2001. His research spans a wide variety of topics in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data science, including scaling learning algorithms to big data, maximizing word of mouth in social networks, unifying logic and probability, and deep learning.


The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World. New York: Basic Books, 2015.

What’s Missing in AI: The Interface Layer. In P. Cohen (ed.), Artificial Intelligence: The First Hundred Years. Menlo Park, CA: AAAI Press. To appear.

How Not to Regulate the Data Economy. Medium, 2018.

Ten Myths About Machine Learning. Medium, 2016.

Debugging data: Microsoft researchers look at ways to train AI systems to reflect the real world.  Microsoft AI Blog.  | John Roach


– Alchemy: Statistical relational AI.

– SPN: Sum-product networks for tractable deep learning.

– RDIS: Recursive decomposition for nonconvex optimization.

– BVD: Bias-variance decomposition for zero-one loss.

– NBE: Bayesian learner with very fast inference.

– RISE: Unified rule- and instance-based learner.

– VFML: Toolkit for mining massive data sources.

Online Course 

– online machine learning class. Pedro Domingos (Link to series of YouTube videos)

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– On Artificial Intelligence and Analytics. Interview with Narendra Mulani ODBMS Industry Watch, August 12, 2017

– How Algorithms can untangle Human Questions. Interview with Brian Christian. ODBMS Industry Watch, March 31, 2017

Big Data and The Great A.I. Awakening. Interview with Steve Lohr. ODBMS Industry Watch, December 19, 2016

Machines of Loving Grace. Interview with John Markoff. ODBMS Indutry Watch, August 11, 2016

On Artificial Intelligence and Society. Interview with Oren Etzioni. ODBMS Industry Watch, January 15, 2016

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2 Comments Leave one →
  1. Ibrahim permalink

    Thank you for sharing this interesting interview with us.

  2. Marco permalink

    Great interview! thanks

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