Just Getting ML Things Done

It’s true that at some point, you might need full control of the situation, with access to the loss function and maybe even the gradients. But sometimes, all you need is a hammer and a pair of nails without fine-tuning anything. Why? Because you just want to get the job done, ASAP. For example, we had a crazy idea that is likely to NOT work, but if we just need 10 minutes coding and 30 minutes waiting for the results, why not trying it? Without a proper framework, we would need to adjust our own code which can be a problem if there are lots of “best practices” one need to consider, like for instance for recurrent nets. Then it’s probably a better idea to use a mature implementation to avoid common pitfalls, so you can just focus on the actual work. Otherwise frustration is only a matter of time and spending hours on a problem that someone else has already solved will lead you nowhere.

Long story short, what we needed is a front-end for Theano with a clean interface and without the need to write tons of boilerplate code. After some investigations, and by focusing on support for recurrent nets, we decided to give Keras a try. The actual code to build and train the network has less than 20 lines, because of the sophisticated design of the framework. In other words, it allows you to get things done in a nice, but also fast way, if you are willing to to sacrifice the ability of controlling every aspect of the training.

After testing the code with a small dataset, we generated the actual dataset and started the training. What can we say? The whole procedure was painless. Installation? No problem. Writing the code? Piece of cake. The training? Smooth without any fine-tuning. Model deployment? After installing h5py it worked without any problems ;-).

Bottom line, we are still an advocate of Theano, but writing all the code yourself can be a bit of a burden, especially if you throw all the stuff away after a single experiment. Furthermore, if your experiment uses a standard network architecture without the necessity to tune or adjust it, mature code can avoid lots of frustration in form of hours of bug hunting. Plus, it’s likely that the code contains some heuristics to work around some known problems that you might not be aware of.

For clarification, we do not say that Keras is just a high-level front-end and does not allow any customization, what we say is that it does a great just to provide one in case you don’t need all the expert stuff! And last but not least, it allows you to switch the back-end in case you want something else than Theano. We like the concept a lot provide a unified API for different back-ends, because it’s possible that back-ends have different strengths and weaknesses and the freedom to choose allows you, to write code with one API but switching
back-ends dynamically as you need it.

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