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The narrative that often accompanies most stories about artificial intelligence these days is how machines will disrupt any number of industries, from healthcare to transportation. It makes sense. After all, technology already drives many of the innovations in these sectors of the economy.
But sneakers and the red carpet? The definitively low-tech fashion industry would seem to be one of the last to turn over its creative direction to data scientists and machine learning algorithms.
However, big brands, e-commerce giants, and numerous startups are betting that AI can ingest data and spit out Chanel. Maybe it’s not surprising, given that fashion is partly about buzz and trends—and there’s nothing more buzzy and trendy in the world of tech today than AI.
In its annual survey of the $3 trillion fashion industry, consulting firm McKinsey predicted that while AI didn’t hit a “critical mass” in 2018, it would increasingly influence the business of everything from design to manufacturing.
“Fashion as an industry really has been so slow to understand its potential roles interwoven with technology. And, to be perfectly honest, the technology doesn’t take fashion seriously.” This comment comes from Zowie Broach, head of fashion at London’s Royal College of Arts, who as a self-described “old fashioned” designer has embraced the disruptive nature of technology—with some caveats.
Co-founder in the late 1990s of the avant-garde fashion label Boudicca, Broach has always seen tech as a tool for designers, even setting up a website for the company circa 1998, way before an online presence became, well, fashionable.
Broach told Singularity Hub that while she is generally optimistic about the future of technology in fashion—the designer has avidly been consuming old sci-fi novels over the last few years—there are still a lot of difficult questions to answer about the interface of algorithms, art, and apparel.
For instance, can AI do what the great designers of the past have done? Fashion was “about designing, it was about a narrative, it was about meaning, it was about expression,” according to Broach.
AI that designs products based on data gleaned from human behavior can potentially tap into the Pavlovian response in consumers in order to make money, Broach noted. But is that channeling creativity, or just digitally dabbling in basic human brain chemistry?
She is concerned about people retaining control of the process, whether we’re talking about their data or their designs. But being empowered with the insights machines could provide into, for example, the geographical nuances of fashion between Dubai, Moscow, and Toronto is thrilling.
“What is it that we want the future to be from a fashion, an identity, and design perspective?” she asked.
Off on the Right Foot
Silicon Valley and some of the biggest brands in the industry offer a few answers about where AI and fashion are headed (though not at the sort of depths that address Broach’s broader questions of aesthetics and ethics).
Take what is arguably the biggest brand in fashion, at least by market cap but probably not by the measure of appearances on Oscar night: Nike. The $100 billion shoe company just gobbled up an AI startup called Celect to bolster its data analytics and optimize its inventory. In other words, Nike hopes it will be able to figure out what’s hot and what’s not in a particular location to stock its stores more efficiently.
The company is going even further with Nike Fit, a foot-scanning platform using a smartphone camera that applies AI techniques from fields like computer vision and machine learning to find the best fit for each person’s foot. The algorithms then identify and recommend the appropriately sized and shaped shoe in different styles.
No doubt the next step will be to 3D print personalized and on-demand sneakers at any store.
San Francisco-based startup ThirdLove is trying to bring a similar approach to bra sizes. Its 20-member data team, Fortune reported, has developed the Fit Finder quiz that uses machine learning algorithms to help pick just the right garment for every body type.
Data scientists are also a big part of the team at Stitch Fix, a former San Francisco startup that went public in 2017 and today sports a market cap of more than $2 billion. The online “personal styling” company uses hundreds of algorithms to not only make recommendations to customers, but to help design new styles and even manage the subscription-based supply chain.
Future of Fashion
E-commerce giant Amazon has thrown its own considerable resources into developing AI applications for retail fashion—with mixed results.
One notable attempt involved a “styling assistant” that came with the company’s Echo Look camera that helped people catalog and manage their wardrobes, evening helping pick out each day’s attire. The company more recently revisited the direct consumer side of AI with an app called StyleSnap, which matches clothes and accessories uploaded to the site with the retailer’s vast inventory and recommends similar styles.
Behind the curtains, Amazon is going even further. A team of researchers in Israel have developed algorithms that can deduce whether a particular look is stylish based on a few labeled images. Another group at the company’s San Francisco research center was working on tech that could generate new designs of items based on images of a particular style the algorithms trained on.
“I will say that the accumulation of many new technologies across the industry could manifest in a highly specialized style assistant, far better than the examples we’ve seen today. However, the most likely thing is that the least sexy of the machine learning work will become the most impactful, and the public may never hear about it.”
That prediction is from an online interview with Leanne Luce, a fashion technology blogger and product manager at Google who recently wrote a book called, succinctly enough, Artificial Intelligence and Fashion.
Data Meets Design
Academics are also sticking their beakers into AI and fashion. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Adobe Research have previously demonstrated that neural networks, a type of AI designed to mimic some aspects of the human brain, can be trained to generate (i.e., design) new product images to match a buyer’s preference, much like the team at Amazon.
Meanwhile, scientists at Hong Kong Polytechnic University are working with China’s answer to Amazon, Alibaba, on developing a FashionAI Dataset to help machines better understand fashion. The effort will focus on how algorithms approach certain building blocks of design, what are called “key points” such as neckline and waistline, and “fashion attributes” like collar types and skirt styles.
The man largely behind the university’s research team is Calvin Wong, a professor and associate head of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Institute of Textiles and Clothing. His group has also developed an “intelligent fabric defect detection system” called WiseEye for quality control, reducing the chance of producing substandard fabric by 90 percent.
Wong and company also recently inked an agreement with RCA to establish an AI-powered design laboratory, though the details of that venture have yet to be worked out, according to Broach.
One hope is that such collaborations will not just get at the technological challenges of using machines in creative endeavors like fashion, but will also address the more personal relationships humans have with their machines.
“I think who we are, and how we use AI in fashion, as our identity, is not a superficial skin. It’s very, very important for how we define our future,” Broach said.
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When every other tech startup claims to use artificial intelligence, it can be tough to figure out if an AI service or product works as advertised. In the midst of the AI “gold rush,” how can you separate the nuggets from the fool’s gold?
There’s no shortage of cautionary tales involving overhyped AI claims. And applying AI technologies to health care, education, and law enforcement mean that getting it wrong can have real consequences for society—not just for investors who bet on the wrong unicorn.
So IEEE Spectrum asked experts to share their tips for how to identify AI hype in press releases, news articles, research papers, and IPO filings.
“It can be tricky, because I think the people who are out there selling the AI hype—selling this AI snake oil—are getting more sophisticated over time,” says Tim Hwang, director of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative.
The term “AI” is perhaps most frequently used to describe machine learning algorithms (and deep learning algorithms, which require even less human guidance) that analyze huge amounts of data and make predictions based on patterns that humans might miss. These popular forms of AI are mostly suited to specialized tasks, such as automatically recognizing certain objects within photos. For that reason, they are sometimes described as “weak” or “narrow” AI.
Some researchers and thought leaders like to talk about the idea of “artificial general intelligence” or “strong AI” that has human-level capacity and flexibility to handle many diverse intellectual tasks. But for now, this type of AI remains firmly in the realm of science fiction and is far from being realized in the real world.
“AI has no well-defined meaning and many so-called AI companies are simply trying to take advantage of the buzz around that term,” says Arvind Narayanan, a computer scientist at Princeton University. “Companies have even been caught claiming to use AI when, in fact, the task is done by human workers.”
Here are three ways to recognize AI hype.
Look for Buzzwords
One red flag is what Hwang calls the “hype salad.” This means stringing together the term “AI” with many other tech buzzwords such as “blockchain” or “Internet of Things.” That doesn’t automatically disqualify the technology, but spotting a high volume of buzzwords in a post, pitch, or presentation should raise questions about what exactly the company or individual has developed.
Other experts agree that strings of buzzwords can be a red flag. That’s especially true if the buzzwords are never really explained in technical detail, and are simply tossed around as vague, poorly-defined terms, says Marzyeh Ghassemi, a computer scientist and biomedical engineer at the University of Toronto in Canada.
“I think that if it looks like a Google search—picture ‘interpretable blockchain AI deep learning medicine’—it's probably not high-quality work,” Ghassemi says.
Hwang also suggests mentally replacing all mentions of “AI” in an article with the term “magical fairy dust.” It’s a way of seeing whether an individual or organization is treating the technology like magic. If so—that’s another good reason to ask more questions about what exactly the AI technology involves.
And even the visual imagery used to illustrate AI claims can indicate that an individual or organization is overselling the technology.
“I think that a lot of the people who work on machine learning on a day-to-day basis are pretty humble about the technology, because they’re largely confronted with how frequently it just breaks and doesn't work,” Hwang says. “And so I think that if you see a company or someone representing AI as a Terminator head, or a big glowing HAL eye or something like that, I think it’s also worth asking some questions.”
Interrogate the Data
It can be hard to evaluate AI claims without any relevant expertise, says Ghassemi at the University of Toronto. Even experts need to know the technical details of the AI algorithm in question and have some access to the training data that shaped the AI model’s predictions. Still, savvy readers with some basic knowledge of applied statistics can search for red flags.
To start, readers can look for possible bias in training data based on small sample sizes or a skewed population that fails to reflect the broader population, Ghassemi says. After all, an AI model trained only on health data from white men would not necessarily achieve similar results for other populations of patients.
“For me, a red flag is not demonstrating deep knowledge of how your labels are defined.”
—Marzyeh Ghassemi, University of Toronto
How machine learning and deep learning models perform also depends on how well humans labeled the sample datasets use to train these programs. This task can be straightforward when labeling photos of cats versus dogs, but gets more complicated when assigning disease diagnoses to certain patient cases.
Medical experts frequently disagree with each other on diagnoses—which is why many patients seek a second opinion. Not surprisingly, this ambiguity can also affect the diagnostic labels that experts assign in training datasets. “For me, a red flag is not demonstrating deep knowledge of how your labels are defined,” Ghassemi says.
Such training data can also reflect the cultural stereotypes and biases of the humans who labeled the data, says Narayanan at Princeton University. Like Ghassemi, he recommends taking a hard look at exactly what the AI has learned: “A good way to start critically evaluating AI claims is by asking questions about the training data.”
Another red flag is presenting an AI system’s performance through a single accuracy figure without much explanation, Narayanan says. Claiming that an AI model achieves “99 percent” accuracy doesn’t mean much without knowing the baseline for comparison—such as whether other systems have already achieved 99 percent accuracy—or how well that accuracy holds up in situations beyond the training dataset.
Narayanan also emphasized the need to ask questions about an AI model’s false positive rate—the rate of making wrong predictions about the presence of a given condition. Even if the false positive rate of a hypothetical AI service is just one percent, that could have major consequences if that service ends up screening millions of people for cancer.
Readers can also consider whether using AI in a given situation offers any meaningful improvement compared to traditional statistical methods, says Clayton Aldern, a data scientist and journalist who serves as managing director for Caldern LLC. He gave the hypothetical example of a “super-duper-fancy deep learning model” that achieves a prediction accuracy of 89 percent, compared to a “little polynomial regression model” that achieves 86 percent on the same dataset.
“We're talking about a three-percentage-point increase on something that you learned about in Algebra 1,” Aldern says. “So is it worth the hype?”
Don’t Ignore the Drawbacks
The hype surrounding AI isn’t just about the technical merits of services and products driven by machine learning. Overblown claims about the beneficial impacts of AI technology—or vague promises to address ethical issues related to deploying it—should also raise red flags.
“If a company promises to use its tech ethically, it is important to question if its business model aligns with that promise,” Narayanan says. “Even if employees have noble intentions, it is unrealistic to expect the company as a whole to resist financial imperatives.”
One example might be a company with a business model that depends on leveraging customers’ personal data. Such companies “tend to make empty promises when it comes to privacy,” Narayanan says. And, if companies hire workers to produce training data, it’s also worth asking whether the companies treat those workers ethically.
The transparency—or lack thereof—about any AI claim can also be telling. A company or research group can minimize concerns by publishing technical claims in peer-reviewed journals or allowing credible third parties to evaluate their AI without giving away big intellectual property secrets, Narayanan says. Excessive secrecy is a big red flag.
With these strategies, you don’t need to be a computer engineer or data scientist to start thinking critically about AI claims. And, Narayanan says, the world needs many people from different backgrounds for societies to fully consider the real-world implications of AI.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story misspelled Clayton Aldern’s last name as Alderton. Continue reading