Pierre Baldi leads ICS’s machine learning research, which assists particle physics experiments at CERN.
At the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) produces one petabyte of data per second. Of this, it only records roughly 6
gigabytes per second of data to be processed—amassing a record of 100 petabytes of data since its first run in 2009. For context, 1 petabyte of data is enough to store the DNA of the entire population of the United States, and then clone them twice over, according to Computer Weekly. A library of all of the world’s texts, in all of the world’s languages, would contain nearly 50 petabytes of data. If we work with Computer Weekly’s estimates, 100 petabytes of data would contain the entire human memories of 80,000 people. That’s the amount of data CERN scientists are working with.
And that’s where new techniques in artificial intelligence and machine learning—especially deep learning—become very useful, saysPierre Baldi, Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science and director of the Institute for Genomics & Bioinformatics. In November, Baldi traveled to CERN with his graduate student Peter Sadowski to lecture on deep learning at a groundbreaking Data Science @ LHC 2015 Workshop, forging links between particle physics and machine learning.
Deep learning gets its name from the many layers used in
processing high-level abstractions. As Baldi explains, “Think about vision, for
instance, we don’t recognize images immediately. We detect edges or contours;
it’s a process that occurs in many stages. It’s a deep process that requires
extracting features and combining them together. Deep learning is the idea that
you can train this whole stack of processes together using data.”
Baldi and his collaborator, UCI’s Associate Professor of Astronomy
and Physics Daniel Whiteson, have shown that deep learning
can be used to improve our ability to detect exotic particles like the Higgs
boson, and potentially dark matter. The
universe is 80 percent dark matter, and physicists have observed its
effects on gravity. But because dark matter doesn’t interact with light, we
don’t know what it is, exactly. The particle collision experiments attempt to
produce dark matter within the LHC—though dark matter’s existence, if produced
by the LHC, could only be inferred through energy and momentum lost after a
collision. With this level of obscurity, dark knowledge can improve
deep-learning processes and therefore aid in the analysis of dark matter data.
Deep learning is also capable of creating “dark knowledge,” a form
of knowledge that is not explicitly present in the training data. Consider a
vision system trained to recognize a finite number of object categories, each
one associated with a different output. “When a car is presented to the trained
system, in the output, you’re getting all kinds of numbers. There will be a
large number corresponding to the car category, because the system is
well-trained to recognize the image of a car,” Baldi explains. “But it will
also have some value for a truck, because a truck is somewhat similar to a car.
The intensity for a vegetable, however, will be very low, because a vegetable
has nothing to do with a car. So, dark knowledge is the information contained
in the relative size of these numbers that goes beyond the fact of whether
there is a car or not in the image. It tells you something about the degree of
similarity between the categories.”
Dark knowledge can be used to better train shallow learning
systems—smaller and faster, but less accurate systems like those on your
smartphone—fittingly tying together deep learning, dark knowledge and dark
While the link between deep learning and particle physics is
picking up steam, there remain concerns. “There is always some level of anxiety
when a new method comes into a field, but deep learning comes with additional
anxieties because people view it as a ‘black box method,’” Baldi says. “It may
be very good at recognizing the signature of Higgs bosons, but you don’t know
how it does this, because the system learns from data through an opaque
process. People find this a little unsettling.”
These groundbreaking new techniques upend principles physicists
have relied on for decades, but there’s an additional challenge to implementing
deep learning on a wide scale. “Deep learning requires a lot of computing
resources to process such large amounts of data and to train deep-learning
systems. It’s very intensive from a computational standpoint,” Baldi says.
Naturally, funding such huge enterprises can be difficult.
Still, applying deep-learning techniques to particle physics
experiments represents only the tip of the iceberg in the field’s useful
applications. While deep learning has mainly been utilized in
engineering—examples include Facebook’s face recognition technology, or
Google’s use of deep learning to recognize speech and natural language—the
field could be useful in all natural sciences. In chemistry, for example, it is
being used to predict the outcome of reactions. In biology, it is being used to
predict protein structures, or the effect of mutations.
Ultimately, Baldi says, “Deep learning is the greatest tool we
have today to detect faint signals in data. The potential impact is great.”