Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning: AWS vs Azure vs GCP

Are AI and ML the same thing?
Mainstream media often use Artificial intelligence and machine learning interchangeably. But they are not the same thing. AI is our pursuit of simulating human thought and decision-making in an automated fashion. As Arthur Samuel (who coined the term in 1959) explained, ML is “the field of study that gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.” In other words, ML is one method we can use to try to achieve artificial intelligence.

What are the ingredients for machine learning?
So, what are the core ingredients needed to get an ML system going?

In a nutshell:

  • Lots of data.
  • A way to apply computation or algorithms to that data.
  • Knowledge (to know what you’re doing).
  • Not too long ago, the capabilities to do machine learning was highly specialized and prohibitively
  • expensive. Only governments and a few universities could afford it.

But cloud computing has managed to bring these tools within reach of anyone with an internet connection. Today, you can manage massive amounts of data and harness immense computing power using point-and-click tools that cloud providers have created. Best of all, you only pay for the specific parts you need. Cloud providers have also created some TurnKey services that let us make use of very powerful ML technology through a simple API call.

We are going to compare the AI and ML offerings of AWS, Azure, and GCP across three different areas: machine learning building block services, machine learning platforms, and machine learning infrastructure.

Machine learning building block services
Machine learning building blocks are the services you can use without having to know much about machine learning in the first place. Most people start with machine learning building blocks because the barrier to entry is so low.

These blocks are available either as an API call or using the SDK from the cloud provider. All the providers we’ll talk about below offer rest APIs for their machine learning services.

Speech to text and text to speech
For speech to text, AWS has a service called Amazon Transcribe. Azure and GCP both name their offerings (perhaps obviously) Speech to Text.

For converting text to audible speech, the AWS service name is Amazon Polly, while Azure and GCP have Text to Speech.

Like it or not, chatbots have become commonplace as the first line of customer support. Cloud providers are doing their part to help chatbots offer a better experience (or at least be a little less disappointing) by creating services to support and improve them.

AWS calls its chatbox service Amazon Lex, Azure has Language Understanding, and GCP offers Dialogflow.

Thankfully, translation services have come a long way since Babel Fish (now there’s a 90’s callback!). They are now a very standard offering. The names for the cloud providers’ translation services are pretty straightforward: AWS has Amazon Translate, Azure includes Translator, and GCP provides Translation.

Text Analytics
Text analytics services take natural language (the way we regularly speak to one another) and extract certain themes, topics, and sentiments from it. AWS’ text analytics service is Amazon Comprehend, Azure’s is Text Analytics, while GCP’s is Natural Language.

Document Analysis
An evolution of text analytics is document analysis. In document analysis, machine learning is used to summarize articles or detect information in forms. The AWS offering is called Amazon Textract, Azure has Text Analytics and Form Recognizer for data extraction, and GCP has Document AI.

Image and video analysis

These services can recognize objects and people in images, map faces, or detect potentially objectionable content.

AWS bundles both image and video analysis under their Rekognition product. Meanwhile, Azure offers Computer Vision and Azure Face indexer services. GCP calls their image and video services Vision and Video, respectively.

Anomaly detection
Computers are pretty good at detecting when things are out of the ordinary, but you typically have to tell them what to watch for. Cloud providers use machine learning to create services that can watch a stream of events or data and figure out what’s different within the data set. This process is called anomaly detection.

You’ll find this capability in AWS via the Amazon Lookout family of services and Fraud Detector. On Azure, this services are Anomaly Detector and Metrics Advisor, and GCP’s version is Cloud Inference.

Recommendation engines are becoming a popular addition to ecommerce sites. It’s no wonder cloud providers have tried to do some heavy lifting here.

AWS offers Amazon Personalize based on the same technology they developed for their commerce site. Meanwhile, Azure has Personalizer, and GCP has Recommendations AI.

One thing to keep in mind: your recommendations will only be as good as the data you are able to feed into your system.

In fact, that goes for all the above services. If your source data is sketchy, the end results are likely to turn out quite disappointing!

Machine learning platforms
When we talk about machine learning platforms, we’re referring to the workbench and tools that ML practitioners use. It’s analogous to a developer using an IDE and some libraries to write their code.

For machine learning, Jupyter Notebook is the de-facto workbench for data scientists. Unsurprisingly, all three cloud providers offer Jupyter Notebooks or some slightly rebranded version as part of their platforms.

Another consistency across the board is support of major machine learning frameworks, including TensorFlow, MXNet, Keras, PyTorch, Chainer, SciKit Learn, and several more. Cloud providers integrate features like security, collaboration, and data management in their platforms.

Guided model development
For those of you just starting out on your ML journey, cloud providers have invested in some gentle introductions. For example, AWS’ “just getting started” service is called SageMaker Autopilot, Azure has Automated ML and a drag-and-drop tool called Azure Machine Learning designer, and GCP has a line of guided model creation tools that they call AutoML.

Full ML workbench
If you’re a seasoned pro who doesn’t need the training wheels, AWS offers SageMaker Studio, Azure has Machine Learning Notebooks, and GCP provides AI Platform.

Our article on SageMaker Studio Lab guides you on where and how to experiment with ML for free!
Another feature getting a lot of attention lately is MLOps, the DevOps equivalent for machine learning. AWS calls theirs SageMaker MLOps, Azure’s is simply MLOps, and GCP has Pipelines.

Augmented AI
AWS also has Augmented AI (Amazon A2I), which is something we haven’t seen yet on the other platforms (although it’s surely just a matter of time). Augmented AI is a way to enlist the power of real, living, breathing humans to help improve your machine learning service.

Here’s an extremely practical example:

Let’s say you’ve determined that your machine learning model is about 95% accurate at identifying images of angry ferrets, but you need to have 100% accuracy. For those cases where the ML model’s confidence is low, you can direct the ferret picture in question over to a live human, who can then determine if the ferret is angry or not.

Machine Learning Infrastructure
All the cloud providers really like containers for their respective machine learning platforms, and for good reason. Containers are relatively lightweight, portable, and can be shuffled around without much hassle.

All three providers offer push-button container deployment for specific versions of the ML frameworks, optimized for training, validation, and inferences. If you’re more of a DIY person, all the providers have platform-optimized virtual machines for all the major frameworks as well. The latter is what most people use if they already have a model trained on-prem.

There’s a bit of a cloud provider arms race going on with machine learning. All three are leaning into optimized hardware, with each provider claiming superior performance and economics. All of the providers offer various levels of CPU and GPU virtual machine types. Additionally, some have also invested in specialized hardware in the form of application-specific integrated circuits (ASIC) and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA).

AWS offers Habana Gaudi ASIC instances and a custom processor they call AWS Trainium, optimized for model training. AWS also offers an ASIC called Inferentia for machine learning inferences.
Azure has a line of FPGA-based virtual machines tuned specifically for machine learning workloads.
GCP offers their custom Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), which is ASIC-optimized for the TensorFlow framework.
As always, there’s a tradeoff. These specialized Hardware platforms are really good at machine learning tasks, but economically speaking, they’re not very useful for anything else. CPU and GPU-based machines are much more flexible, and are generally what people use first as they develop and refine their ML models.

Machine learning explainability and bias
For all its inherent promise and opportunity, developing quality ML models is really hard. If you happen to get it wrong, the resulting ML-generated decisions can range anywhere from slightly embarrassing to downright immoral, both for ethical and sometimes regulatory reasons.

We need to be able to explain how our ML model makes its decisions. Practitioners call this explainability, and fortunately, cloud providers have tools to help out with this:

* AWS has SageMaker Clarify, which helps provide a lens into how data elements influence the model-generation process and evaluate fairness.
* Azure has this same ability integrated into Responsible ML and Fairlearn SDK.
* GCP provides this under the name AI Explanations.

Image credit: Robot hand photo created by rawpixel.com

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