New AI programming language goes beyond deep learning

A team of MIT researchers is making it easier for novices to get their feet wet with artificial intelligence, while also helping experts advance the field.

In a paper presented at the Programming Language Design and Implementation conference this week, the researchers describe a novel probabilistic-programming system named “Gen.” Users write models and algorithms from multiple fields where techniques are applied such as computer vision, robotics, and statistics without having to deal with equations or manually write high-performance code. Gen also lets expert researchers write sophisticated models and inference algorithms used for prediction tasks that were previously infeasible.

In their paper, for instance, the researchers that a short Gen program can infer 3-D body poses, a difficult computer-vision inference task that has applications in autonomous systems, human-machine interactions, and augmented reality. Behind the scenes, this program includes components that perform graphics rendering, deep-learning, and types of probability simulations. The combination of these diverse techniques leads to better accuracy and speed on this task than earlier systems developed by some of the researchers.

Due to its simplicity and, in some use cases, automation the researchers say Gen can be used easily by anyone, from novices to experts. “One motivation of this work is to make automated AI more accessible to people with less expertise in computer science or math,” says first author Marco Cusumano-Towner, a PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “We also want to increase productivity, which means making it easier for experts to rapidly iterate and prototype their AI systems.”

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The researchers also demonstrated Gen’s ability to simplify data analytics by using another Gen program that automatically generates sophisticated statistical models typically used by experts to analyze, interpret, and predict underlying patterns in data. That builds on the researchers’ previous work that let users to write a few lines of code to uncover insights into financial trends, air travel, voting patterns, and the spread of disease, among other trends. This is different from earlier systems, which required a lot of hand coding for accurate predictions.

“Gen is the first system that’s flexible, automated, and efficient enough to cover those very different types of examples in computer vision and data science and give state of-the-art performance,” says Vikash K. Mansinghka ’05, MEng ’09, PhD ’09, a researcher in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences who runs the Probabilistic Computing Project.

Joining Cusumano-Towner and Mansinghka on the paper are Feras Saad and Alexander K. Lew, both CSAIL graduate students and members of the Probabilistic Computing Project.

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