Tags: , , , , , , | Categories: Development Posted by bsstahl on 3/16/2018 12:22 PM | Comments (0)
plus ça change, plus c'est la même choseThe more that things change, the more they stay the same. – Rush (and others Winking smile )

In 2013 I wrote that programmers needed to take responsibility for the output of their computer programs.  In that article, I advised developers that the output of their system, no matter how “random” or “computer generated”, was still their responsibility. I suggested that we cannot cop out by claiming  that the output of our programs is not our fault simply because we didn’t directly instruct the computer to issue that specific result.

Today, we have a similar problem, only the stakes are much, much, higher.

In the world of 2018, our algorithms are being used in police work and inside other government agencies to know where and when to deploy resources, and to decide who is and isn’t worthy of an opportunity. Our programs are being used in the private sector to make decisions from trading stocks to hiring, sometimes at a scale and speed that puts us all at risk of economic events. These tools are being deployed by information brokers such as Facebook and Google to make predictions about how best to steal the most precious resource we have, our time.  Perhaps scariest of all, these algorithms may be being used to make decisions that have permanent and irreversible results, such as with drone strikes.  We  simply have no way of knowing the full breadth of decisions that AIs are making on our behalf today.  If those algorithms are biased in any way, the decisions made by these programs will be biased, potentially in very serious ways and with serious results.

If we take all available steps to recognize and eliminate the biases in our systems, we can minimize the likelihood of our tools producing output that we did not expect or that violates our principles.

All of the machines used to execute these algorithms are bias-free of course.  A computer has no prejudices and no desires of its own.  However, as we all know, decision-making  tools learn what we teach them.  We cannot completely teach these algorithms free of our own biases.  It simply cannot be done since all of our data is colored by our existing biases.  Perhaps the best known example of bias in our data is in crime data used for policing. If we send police to where there is most often crime, we will be sending them to the same places we’ve sent them in the past, since generally, crime involves having a police office in the location to make an arrest. Thus, any biases we may have had in the past about where to send police officers, will be represented in our data sets about crime.

While we may never be able to eliminate biases completely, there are things that we can do to minimize the impact of the biases we are training into our algorithms.  If we take all available steps to recognize and eliminate the biases in our systems, we can minimize the likelihood of our tools producing output that we did not expect or that violates our principles.

Know that the algorithm is biased

We need to accept the fact that there is no way to create a completely bias-free algorithm.  Any dataset we provide to our tools will inherently have some bias in it.  This is the nature of our world.  We create our datasets based on history and our history, intentionally or not, is full of bias.  All of our perceptions and understandings are colored by our cognitive biases, and the same is true for the data we create as a result of our actions.  By knowing and accepting this fact, that our data is biased, and therefore our algorithms are biased, we take the first step toward neutralizing the impacts of those biases.

Predict the possible biases

We should do everything we can to predict what biases may have crept into our data and how they may impact the decisions the model is making, even if that bias is purely theoretical.  By considering what biases could potentially exist, we can watch for the results of those biases, both in an automated and manual fashion.

Train “fairness” into the model

If a bias is known to be present in the data, or even likely to be present, it can be accounted for by defining what an unbiased outcome might look like and making that a training feature of the algorithm.  If we can reasonably assume that an unbiased algorithm would distribute opportunities among male and female candidates at the same rate as they apply for the opportunity, then we can constrain the model with the expectation that the rate of  accepted male candidates should be within a statistical tolerance of  the rate of male applicants.  That is, if half of the applicants are men then men should receive roughly half of the opportunities.  Of course, it will not be nearly this simple to define fairness for most algorithms, however every effort should be made.

Be Open About What You’ve Built

The more people understand how you’ve examined your data, and the assumptions you’ve made, the more confident they can be that anomalies in the output are not a result of systemic bias. This is the most critical when these decisions have significant consequences to peoples’ lives.  A good example is in prison sentencing. It is unconscionable to me that we allow black-box algorithms to make sentencing decisions on our behalf.  These models should be completely transparent and subject to our analysis and correction.  That they aren’t, but are still being used by our governments, represent a huge breakdown of the system, since these decisions MUST be made with the trust and at the will of the populace.

Build AIs that Provide Insight Into Results (when possible)

Many types of AI models are completely opaque when it comes to how decisions are reached.  This doesn’t mean however that all of our AIs must be complete black-boxes.  It is true that  most of the common machine learning methods such as Deep-Neural-Networks (DNNs) are extremely difficult to analyze.  However, there are other types of models that are much more transparent when it comes to decision making.  Some model types will not be useable on all problems, but when the options exist, transparency should be a strong consideration.

There are also techniques that can be used to make even opaque models more transparent.  For example, a hybrid technique (here & here)  can be used to run opaque models iteratively.  This can allow the developer to log key details at specific points in the process, making the decisions much more transparent.  There are also techniques to manipulate the data after a decision is made, to gain insight into the reasons for the decision.

Don’t Give the AI the Codes to the Nukes

Computers should never be allowed to make automated decisions that cannot be reversed by a human if necessary. Decisions like when to attack a target, execute a criminal, vent radioactive waste, or ditch an aircraft are all decisions that require human verification since they cannot be undone if the model has an error or is faced with  a completely unforeseen set of conditions. There are no circumstances where machines should be making such decisions for us without the opportunity for human intervention, and it is up to us, the programmers, to make sure that we don’t give them that capability.

Don’t Build it if it Can’t be Done Ethically

If we are unable to come up with an algorithm that is free from bias, perhaps the situation is not appropriate for an automated decision making process.  Not every situation will warrant an AI solution, and it is very likely that there are decisions that should always be made by a human in totality.  For those situations, a decision support system may be a better solution.

The Burden is Ours

As the creators of automated decision making systems, we have the responsibility to make sure that the decisions they make do not violate our standards or ethics.  We cannot depend on our AIs to make fair and reasonable decisions unless we program them to do so, and programming them to avoid inherent biases requires an awareness and openness that has not always been present.  By taking the steps outlined here to be aware of the dangers and to mitigate it wherever possible, we have a chance of making decisions that we can all be proud of, and have confidence in.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Categories: Development Posted by bsstahl on 9/29/2017 5:53 AM | Comments (0)


My presentation from the #NDCSydney conference has been published on YouTube.

We depend on Artificial Intelligences to solve many types of problems for us. Some of these problems have more than one possible solution. Handling those problems with more than one solution while building a modern AI system is something every developer will be asked to do over the course of his or her career. Figuring out the best way to utilize the capacity of a device or machine, finding the shortest path between two points, or determining the best way to schedule people or events are all problems where mathematical optimization techniques and tooling can be used to quickly and efficiently find solutions.

This session is a software developers introduction to using mathematical optimization in Artificial Intelligence. In it, we will explore some of the foundational techniques for solving these types of problems, and use the open-source Google OR-Tools to put them to work in our AI systems. Since this is a session for developers, we'll keep it in terms that work best for us. That is, we'll go heavy on the code and lighter on the math.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Categories: Event Posted by bsstahl on 6/23/2017 8:10 AM | Comments (0)

The slide deck for my talk “A Developer’s Survey of AI Techniques” can be found below, while the demo code can be found on GitHub.



The talk explores some of the different techniques used to create Artificial Intelligences using the example of a Chutes & Ladders game.  Various AIs are developed using different strategies for playing a variant of the game, using different techniques for deciding where on the game board to move.

If you would like me to deliver this talk, or any of my talks, at your User Group or Conference, please contact me.

Tags: , , , , , , , | Categories: Event Posted by bsstahl on 5/7/2017 3:40 AM | Comments (0)

The slide deck for my presentation “Examples of Microservice Architectures” can be found here.

There isn't one clear answer to the question "what does a micro-service architecture look like?" so it can be very enlightening to see some existing implementations. In this presentation, we will look at 2 different applications that would not traditionally be thought of as candidates for a service-oriented approach. We'll look at how they were implemented and what benefits the micro-services architecture brought to the table for each application.

The demo code for my presentation on Testing in Visual Studio 2017 at the VS2017 Launch event can be found on GitHub.  There are 2 branches to this repository, the Main branch which holds the completed demo, and the DemoStart branch which holds the starting point of the demonstration in case you would like to implement the sample yourself.

The demo shows how Microsoft Fakes (formerly Moles) can be used to create tests against code that does not implement a reusable interface. This can be done  without having to resort to integration style tests or writing extra wrapper code just to implement an interface.  During my launch presentation, I also use this code to demonstrate the use of Intellitest (formerly Pex) to generate exploratory tests.

I really enjoy working with .NET Core.  I like the fact that my code is portable to many platforms and that the footprint is so much smaller than with traditional .NET applications.  Unfortunately, the tooling has not quite reached the level that we expect from a Microsoft finished product (which it isn’t – yet). As a result, there are some additional actions we need to take when setting up our solutions in Visual Studio 2015 to allow us to unit test our code properly.  The following are the steps that I currently take to setup and test a .NET Core library using XUnit and Moq.  I know that a number of these steps will be done for us, or at least made much easier, by the tooling in the coming months, either by Visual Studio 2017, or by enhancements to the Visual Studio 2015 environments.

  1. Create the library to be tested in Visual Studio 2015
    1. File > New Project > .Net Core > Class Library
    2. Notice that this project is created in a solution folder called ‘src’
  2. Create a solution folder named ‘test’ to hold our test projects
    1. Right-click on the Solution > Add > New Solution Folder
  3. Add a new console application to the test folder as our test project
    1. Right-click on the ‘test’ folder > Add > New Project > .Net Core > Console Application
  4. Add a reference to the library being tested in the test project
    1. Right-click on the test project > Add > Reference > Select the library to be tested
  5. Install packages needed for unit testing from NuGet to the test project
    1. Right-click on the test project > Manage NuGet Packages > Browse
    2. Install ‘xunit’ as our unit test runner
      1. The current version for .Net Core is ‘2.2.0-beta4-build3444’
    3. Install ‘dotnet-test-xunit’ to integrate xunit with the Visual Studio test tools
      1. The current version for .Net Core is ‘2.2.0-preview2-build1029’
    4. Install ‘Moq’ as our mocking library
      1. The current version for .Net Core is ‘4.6.38-alpha’
  6. Edit the project.json of the test library
    1. Change the “EmitEntryPoint” option to false
    2. Add “testrunner” : “xunit” node

Some other optional steps include:

  • Install the ‘Microsoft.CodeCoverage’ package from NuGet to enable the code coverage tooling
  • Install the ‘Microsoft.Extension.DependencyInjection’ package from NuGet to enable DI
  • Install the ‘TestHelperExtensions’ package from NuGet to add extensions that assist with writing good unit tests
  • Add any additional runtimes that might be needed. Some options are:
    • win10-x86
    • win10-x64
    • win7-x86
    • win7-x64
  • Set ‘Run tests after build’ in Visual Studio so tests run automatically

There will likely be better ways to do many of these things shortly, but if you know a better way now, please let me know via Twitter.

One of the techniques I recommend highly in my Simplify Your API talk is the use of extension methods to hide the complexity of lower-level API functionality.  A good example of a place to use this methodology came-up last night in a great Reflection talk by Jeremy Clark (Twitter, Blog) at the NorthWest Valley .NET User Group


Jeremy was demonstrating a method that would spin-through an assembly and load all classes within that assembly that implemented a particular interface.  The syntax to do the checks on each type were just a bit more obtuse than Jeremy would have liked them to be.  As we left that talk, I only half-jokingly told Jeremy that I was going to write him an extension method to make that activity simpler.  Being a man of my word, I present the code below to do just that.

Tags: , , , , , , | Categories: Development Posted by bsstahl on 10/16/2016 2:11 AM | Comments (0)

The slide deck for my presentation on Optimization for Developers (A Developer’s Guide to Finding Optimal Solutions) can be found here.  I hope that if you attended one of my code camp sessions on the topic, you enjoyed it and found it valuable.  I am happy to accept any feedback via Twitter.

Tags: , , , , , , | Categories: Development Posted by bsstahl on 7/1/2016 10:49 PM | Comments (0)

Dynamic Programming (DP) is a mathematical tool that can be used to efficiently solve certain types of problems and is a must-have in any software developer's toolbox. A lot has been written about this process from a mathematician's perspective but there are very few resources out there to help software developers who want to implement this technique in code. In this article and the companion conference talk "Dynamic Optimization - One Algorithm All Programmers Should Know", I attempt to demystify this simple tool so that developer's can implement it for their customers.

What is Combinatorial Optimization?

Mathematical or Combinatorial Optimization is the process of finding the best available solution to a problem by minimizing or eliminating undesirable factors and maximizing desirable ones.  For example, we might want to find the best path through a graph that represents the roads and intersections of our city.  In this case, we might want to minimize the distance travelled, or the estimated amount of time it will take to travel that distance.  Other examples of optimization problems include determining the best utilization of a machine or device, optimal assignment of scarce resources, and a spell-checker determining the most likely word being misspelled.

We want to make sure that we do not conflate combinatorial optimization with code optimization.  It is certainly important to have efficient code when running an optimization algorithm, however there are very different techniques for optimizing code than for optimizing the solution to a problem. Code optimization has to do with the efficiency of the implementation whereas combinatorial optimization deals with the efficiency of the algorithm itself.  Efficiency in both areas will be critical for solving problems in large domains.

What is Dynamic Programming?

Ultimately, DP is just a process, a methodology for solving optimization problems that can be defined recursively1.  It is really about a way of attacking a problem that, if it were addressed naïvely, might not produce the best possible answer, or might not even converge to a solution in an acceptable amount of time.  Dynamic Programming provides a logical approach to these types of problems through a 2-step process that has the effect of breaking the problem into smaller sub-problems and solving each sub-problem only once, caching the results for later use2.

The steps in the process are as follows:

  1. Fill out the cache by determining the value of each sub-problem, building each answer based on the value of the previous answers
  2. Use the values in the cache to answer questions about the problem

Since we fill-out the entire cache for each problem3, we can be 100% certain that we know what the best possible answers to the questions are because we have explored all possibilities.

Dynamic Programming in Action

Let's look at one of the canonical types of problems that can be solved using Dynamic Programming, the knapsack problem.  A knapsack problem occurs in any situation where you have a limited capacity that can be consumed by a number of different possible options.  We need to look for the best fit and optimize for the maximum based on the definition of value in our problem.  This class of problem gets its name from the story of the archeologist in the collapsing ruin.  She has a knapsack that can hold a known weight without tearing and she needs to use it to rescue artifacts from the ruin before it collapses entirely.   She wants to maximize the value of artifacts she can save, without exceeding the capacity of her knapsack, because it would then tear and she wouldn't be able to carry anything.

We can solve this type of problem using Dynamic Programming by filling-out a table that holds possible capacities, from 0 to the capacity of our known knapsack, and each of the possible items to use to fill that space, as shown below.

In this example, there are 3 items with weights of 4, 5 and 2.  These items have values of 5, 6 and 3 respectively and can be placed in a knapsack with capacity of 9. The leftmost column of the table represents the capacities of knapsacks from 0, up to and including the capacity of our knapsack.  The next column represents the best value we would get in the knapsack if we had the option of putting 0 items in our knapsack. The next, the best value if we had the option of taking the 1st item, the next column, the option to take the 2nd item on top of any previous items, and so forth until we complete the table.  As you can see, the most value we can get in our knapsack with the option of picking from these 3 items is 11, as found in the last row of the last column. That is, the cell that represents a knapsack with our known capacity, with the option to chose from all of the items.

To calculate each of these cells, we build on the values calculated earlier in the process.  For the 1st column, it is easy. If we can chose no items, the value of the items in our knapsack is always 0. The rest of the cells are calculated by determining the greater of the following 2 values:

  • The value if we didn't take the current item, which is always the value of the same capacity knapsack from the previous column
  • The value if we took the current item, which is the value of the current item, added to the value of the knapsack from the previous column if the weight of the current item were removed

So, for the cell in the column labeled "1" with a knapsack capacity of 6, we take the greater of:

  • 0, since we wouldn't have any items in  the knapsack if we chose not to take the item
  • 5, the value of the current item, added to the value of the other items in the knapsack, which was previously empty

For the cell in column "2" with a knapsack capacity of 9, we take the greater of:

  • 5, which is the value of the knapsack with capacity 9 from column "1" indicating that we didn't take the 2nd item
  • 11, which is the value of the current item added to the best value of the knapsack with capacity 4 (subtract the weight of our current item from the capacity of the current knapsack) with the option of taking only the previous items.

Each cell in the table can be filled out by doing these simple calculations, 1 addition and 1 comparison, using the values previously calculated as shown in the annotated table below.

So we've filled out the table and know, from the cell in the bottom right that the maximum value we can get from this knapsack with these items is 11. Great, but that only answers the question of maximum value, it doesn't tell us which items are chosen to achieve this value.  To determine that, we need to work backward from the known best value.

Starting at the known best value in the bottom-right cell, we can look one cell to the left to see that the value there is the same.  Since we know that taking an item would increase the value of the knapsack, we can know that we must not have chosen to take the item in the last column.  We can then repeat the process from there.  From the bottom cell in the column labeled "2", we can look left and see that the value in the previous column did change, so we know we need to take the item in column "2" to get our maximum value.  Since we know that item 2 had a weight of 5, we can subtract that from the capacity of our knapsack, and continue the process from that point, knowing that we now only have 4 more units of capacity to work with.  Comparing the item in the column labeled "1" and a knapsack capacity of 4 with the value of the equivalent knapsack in column "0", we can see that we need to include item 1 in our knapsack to get the optimum result.


What did we actually do here?

There is no magic here. All we did was take a problem that we could describe in a recursive way, and implement a process that used easy calculations that built upon the results of previous calculations, to fill-out a data cache that allowed us to answer the two primary questions of this problem:

  1. What is the maximum value of the knapsack with capacity 9 and the option to take the 3 previously described items up to the capacity of the knapsack?
  2. Which items of the 3 do we need to take to achieve the maximum value described in question

You can probably see that if both axes of this table, the capacity of the knapsack, and the number of items we can chose from, are extremely large, we may run into memory or processing-time constraints when implementing this solutions.  As a result, this may not be the best methodology for solving problems where both the capacity of the knapsack and the number of items is extremely high.  However, if either is a reasonable number, Dynamic Programming can produce a result that is guaranteed to be the optimum solution, in a reasonable amount of time.

Continue the Conversation

I am happy to answer questions or discuss this further. Ping me on Twitter with your comments or questions. I'd love to hear from you.  I am also available to deliver a talk to your conference or user group on this or other topics. You can contact me via my blog, Cognitive Inheritance.


1 In mathematical terms, DP is useful for solving problems that exhibit the characteristics of Overlapping Subproblems and Optimal Substructure.  If a problem is able to be described recursively, it will usually exhibit these traits, but the use of the recursion concept here is a generalization to put the problem in software developer's terms.

2 The process of storing a value for later use is known in mathematics as memoization, an operation which, for all intents and purposes, is equivalent to caching.

3 Variants of certain DP algorithms exist where the process can be cut-off under certain conditions prior to fully populating the cache.  These variants are not discussed here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Categories: Development Posted by bsstahl on 10/27/2015 3:43 PM | Comments (0)

I don't create collection objects anymore.

I know, I know. I was they guy always preaching that every entity that was being collected had to have its own collection object. It was the right thing at the time; if you needed to take an action on an enumeration or list of objects, those actions needed to be done within a strongly-typed collection object to maintain encapsulation. Even if all that was happening was that an inherited List<T> function was being called, that functionality needed to be called on the TCollection object because, if it wasn't, it was likely that the next time logic needed to be performed on the collection, there wouldn't be a place to put it. Collection logic would end up being spread-out around your code rather than encapsulated in the collection. It was also possible that the implementation might change and need to be updated everywhere, instead of in one place.

Today however, that has all changed. Extension methods now allow us, at any time, to add functionality to ICollection<T>, IList<T>, IEnumerable<T> or any other interface or class. We can attach our list or enumeration based actions directly to the list or enumeration class, and do so at any time, since the methods appear the same to the developer as methods directly on the collection type. Thus, the "no place to put it" fear no longer exists. I've even started using this technique for my factory methods to make it clear that what I am creating is, in fact, an IEnumerable<T>, as shown below.

    var stations = (null as IEnumerable<Station>).Create();
    var localStations = stations.GetNearby(currentLocation);

In this example, both the Create and GetNearby methods are extension methods found in a static class called StationExtensions.

So, the big advantage here is that these methods can be added anytime, meaning we don't need to create an object that we MAY need in the future. This is better adherence to the YAGNI principle so it is a better pattern to follow. But what about disadvantages? Does it hurt us in any way to perform our collection actions this way? I'm not comfortable answering that question with an absolute "no" yet because I don't think I've been using this technique long enough to have covered enough ground with it, but I can certainly say that I haven't found any disadvantages yet. It seems like these extension methods are basically perfect for this type of activity. These methods do everything that the methods of a collection object do, can (and should) be put in a separate module to keep the code together, can be navigated to by Visual Studio in the same way as other methods, and have the same access (private, internal, public) restrictions that collection objects have. About the only thing I can say that is not 100% positive about using these techniques is that the (null as IEnumerable<T>) syntax to create a local variable instance to call the class factory from is not quite as elegant as I'd like it to be.

So you tell me, do you still create collection objects? Have you found any reason why using extension methods in this way is not as good as putting those methods into a strongly-typed collection? Sound off on Twitter and let's talk about it.