Graeme Smith: Scotland at the heart of advances in machine learning

Amazon's development centre in Edinburgh. Picture: Contributed
Amazon's development centre in Edinburgh. Picture: Contributed
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Thanks in part to work being done in Edinburgh, machine learning is having a transformative effect on the way companies do business, writes Graeme Smith

Advances in cloud computing, hardware, open-source software and algorithms have made it possible to analyse data in ways that simply would not have been practical a few years ago.

Graeme Smith speaking in Edinburgh

Graeme Smith speaking in Edinburgh

Much of this success comes from machine learning - a set of techniques that allow us to make sense of large quantities of data and make predictions about what will happen next. Breakthroughs in machine learning are powering advances in almost every domain, from personalised product recommendations and autonomous vehicles through to drug discovery in healthcare and fraud detection in financial services.

Traditional approaches to solving problems use hardcoded rules, which describe the solution step-by-step. In contrast, machine learning systems are set a task, and given a large amount of data to use as examples of how the task can be achieved. The system then learns how best to achieve the desired output. For simple problems writing out the steps directly is usually sufficient. But for more complex problems, like recognising whether an image contains a face or how to navigate along a busy route from noisy sensor data, machine learning approaches dominate.

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The opportunities are significant and, building on its burgeoning reputation as one of the UK’s leading technology hubs, Edinburgh is taking a leading role.

It is no coincidence that 12 years ago, Amazon chose Edinburgh for its first development centre outside North America. Today, our scientists, engineers and designers are harnessing the latest technology to create inventions that help hundreds of millions of customers all over the world. We thrive in Scotland’s capital because of the talent here and because great technologists from all over the world want to come and live in Edinburgh. The University of Edinburgh is an important partner for us and other technology companies in Scotland. Their School of Informatics produces more world-leading and internationally excellent research in computer science and informatics than any other university in the UK.

Access to world-leading research talent in Edinburgh has allowed us to build a team of scientists and engineers that bring state-of-the-art machine learning to more of our business.

Machine learning is a core technology at Amazon, powering many of Amazon’s visible services for customers, small businesses and content creators – from Alexa our cloud-based voice assistant, Amazon Web Services, and personalised retail sites around the world; through to new innovations like our autonomous Prime Air drone delivery system.

As Jeff Bezos said in a recent letter to shareholders, much more of what we do at Amazon with machine learning happens beneath the surface. Machine learning drives our algorithms for demand forecasting, product search ranking, product and deals recommendations, merchandising placements, fraud detection, translations, and much more. Though less visible, much of the impact of machine learning will be of this type – quietly but meaningfully raising the bar of the customer experience.

When I spoke at the Amazon Academy in Edinburgh earlier this year, I met hundreds of Scottish businesses and start-ups keen to harness the power of the internet and technology to grow their revenue, boost their productivity and export through e-commerce. Many were keen to export, but struggled with translating product descriptions in a simple and low-cost way. To solve this for small businesses, we automated this process to a large extent. While we manually keep checking many translations, we also react to customer feedback, i.e. if they mark a text as “not helpful”. In turn, the computer learns from each correction.

Thanks in part to the work we are doing here at our development centre in Edinburgh, machine learning is having a transformative effect on the way we do business at Amazon and we have only really just begun to understand its potential benefits. With so much of the early thinking developed here in Scotland to inform ongoing research and development, Edinburgh’s reputation as a centre of excellence for computer science will only get stronger. As Scotland looks to build its credentials in the global knowledge economy, machine learning is fast becoming one of Scotland’s greatest assets.

Graeme Smith is managing director of Amazon Development Centre Scotland