Unstructured data is data that isn’t organized in a pre-defined fashion or lacks a specific data model. Meanwhile, structured data is data that has clear, definable relationships between the data points, with a pre-defined model containing it. That’s the short answer on the difference between structured and unstructured data, but let’s take a closer look at the differences between the two types of data.
When it comes to computer science, data structures refer to specific ways of storing and organizing data. Different data structures possess different relationships between data points, but data can also be unstructured. What does it mean to say that data is structured? To make this definition clearer, let’s take a look at some of the various ways of structuring data.
Structured data is often held in tables such as Excel files or SQL databases. In these cases, the rows and columns of the data hold different variables or features, and it is often possible to discern the relationship between data points by checking to see where data rows and columns intersect. Structured data can easily be fit into a relational database, and examples of different features in a structured dataset can include items like names, addresses, dates, weather statistics, credit card numbers, etc. While structured data is most often text data, it is possible to store things like images and audio as structured data as well.
Common sources of structured data include things like data collected from sensors, weblogs, network data, and retail or e-commerce data. Structured data can also be generated by people filling in spreadsheets or databases with data collected from computers and other devices. For instance, data collected through online forms is often immediately fed into a data structure.
Structured data has a long history of being stored in relational databases and SQL. These storage methods are popular because of the ease of reading and writing in these formats, with most platforms and languages being able to interpret these data formats.
In a machine learning context, structured data is easier to train a machine learning system on, because the patterns within the data are more explicit. Certain features can be fed into a machine learning classifier and used to label other data instances based on those selected features. In contrast, training a machine learning system on unstructured data tends to be more difficult, for reasons that will become clear.
Unstructured data is data that isn’t organized according to a pre-defined data model or structure. Unstructured data is often called qualitative data because it can’t be analyzed or processed in traditional ways using the regular methods used for structured data.
Because unstructured data doesn’t have any defined relationships between data points, it can’t be organized in relational databases. In contrast, the way unstructured data is stored is typically with a NoSQL database, or a non-relational database. If the structure of the database is of little concern, a data lake, or a large pool of unstructured data, can be used to store the data instead of a NoSQL database.
Unstructured data is difficult to analyze, and making sense of unstructured data often involves examining individual pieces of data to discern potential features and then looking to see if those features occur in other pieces of data within the pool.
The vast majority of data is in unstructured formats, with estimates that unstructured data comprises around 80% of all data. Data mining techniques can be used to help structure data.
In terms of machine learning, certain techniques can help order unstructured data and turn it into structured data. A popular tool for turning unstructured data into structured data is a system called an autoencoder.
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What is Computer Vision?
Computer vision algorithms are one of the most transformative and powerful AI systems in the world, at the moment. Computer vision systems see use in autonomous vehicles, robot navigation, facial recognition systems, and more. However, what are computer vision algorithms exactly? How do they work? In order to answer these questions, we’ll dive deep into the theory behind computer vision, computer vision algorithms, and applications for computer vision systems.
How Do Computer Vision Sytems Work?
In order to fully appreciate how computer vision systems work, let’s first take a moment to discuss how humans recognize objects. The best explanation neuropsychology has for how we recognize objects is a model that describes the initial phase of object recognition as one where the basic components of objects, such as form, color, and depth are interpreted by the brain first. The signals from the eye that enter the brain are analyzed to pull out the edges of an object first, and these edges are joined together into a more complex representation that complete’s the object’s form.
Computer vision systems operate very similarly to the human visual system, by first discerning the edges of an object and then joining these edges together into the object’s form. The big difference is that because computers interpret images as numbers, a computer vision system needs some way to interpret the individual pixels that comprise the image. The computer vision system will assign values to the pixels in the image and by examining the difference in values between one region of pixels and another region of pixels, the computer can discern edges. For instance, if the image in question is greyscale, then the values will range from black (represented by 0) to white (represented by 255). A sudden change in the range of values of pixels near each other will indicate an edge.
This basic principle of comparing pixel values can also be done with colored images, with the computer comparing differences between the different RGB color channels. So know that we know how a computer vision system examines pixel values to interpret an image, let’s take a look at the architecture of a computer vision system.
Convolutional Neural Networks
The primary type of AI used in computer vision tasks is one based on convolutional neural networks. What’s a convolution exactly?
Convolutions are mathematical processes the network uses to determine the difference in values between pixels. If you envision a grid of pixel values, picture a smaller grid being moved over this main grid. The values underneath the second grid are being analyzed by the network, so the network is only examining a handful of pixels at a time. This is often called the “sliding windows” technique. The values being analyzed by the sliding window are summarized by the network, which helps reduce the complexity of the image and make it easier for the network to extract patterns.
Convolutional neural networks are divided into two different sections, the convolutional section and the fully connected section. The convolutional layers of the network are the feature extractors, whose job is to analyze the pixels within the image and form representations of them that the densely connected layers of the neural network can learn patterns from. The convolutional layers start by just examining the pixels and extracting the low-level features of the image like edges. Later convolutional layers join the edges together into more complex shapes. By the end, the network will hopefully have a representation of the edges and details of the image that it can pass to the fully connected layers.
While a convolutional neural network can extract patterns from images by itself, the accuracy of the computer vision system can be greatly improved by annotating the images. Image annotation is the process of adding metadata to the image that assists the classifier in detecting important objects in the image. The use of image annotation is important whenever computer vision systems need to be highly accurate, such as when controlling an autonomous vehicle or robot.
There are various ways that images can be annotated to improve the performance of a computer vision classifier. Image annotation is often done with bounding boxes, a box that surrounds the edges of the target object and tells the computer to focus its attention within the box. Semantic segmentation is another type of image annotation, which operates by assigning an image class to every pixel in an image. In other words, every pixel that could be considered “grass” or “trees” will be labeled as belonging to those classes. The technique provides pixel-level precision, but creating semantic segmentation annotations is more complex and time-consuming than creating simple bounding boxes. Other annotation methods, like lines and points, also exist.
What Are Neural Networks?
Many of the biggest advances in AI are driven by artificial neural networks. Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) are the connection of mathematical functions joined together in a format inspired by the neural networks found in the human brain. These ANNs are capable of extracting complex patterns from data, applying these patterns to unseen data to classify/recognize the data. In this way, the machine “learns”. That’s a quick rundown on neural networks, but let’s take a closer look at neural networks to better understand what they are and how they operate.
Understanding The Multi-layer Perceptron
Before we look at more complex neural networks, we’re going to take a moment to look at a simple version of an ANN, a Multi-Layer Perceptron (MLP).
Imagine an assembly line at a factory. On this assembly line, one worker receives an item, makes some adjustments to it, and then passes it on to the next worker in the line who does the same. This process continues until the last worker in the line puts the finishing touches on the item and puts it on a belt that will take it out of the factory. In this analogy, there are multiple “layers” to the assembly line, and products move between layers as they move from worker to worker. The assembly line also has an entry point and an exit point.
A Multi-Layer Perceptron can be thought of as a very simple production line, made out of three layers total: an input layer, a hidden layer, and an output layer. The input layer is where the data is fed into the MLP, and in the hidden layer some number of “workers” handle the data before passing it onto the output layer which gives the product to the outside world. In the instance of an MLP, these workers are called “neurons” (or sometimes nodes) and when they handle the data they manipulate it through a series of mathematical functions.
Within the network, there are structures connecting node to node called “weights”. Weights are an assumption about how data points are related as they move through the network. To put that another way, weights reflect the level of influence that one neuron has over another neuron. The weights pass through an “activation function” as they leave the current node, which is a type of mathematical function that transforms the data. They transform linear data into non-linear representations, which enables the network to analyze complex patterns.
The analogy to the human brain implied by “artificial neural network” comes from the fact that the neurons which make up the human brain are joined together in a similar fashion to how nodes in an ANN are linked.
While multi-layer perceptrons have existed since the 1940s, there were a number of limitations that prevented them from being especially useful. However, over the course of the past couple of decades, a technique called “backpropagation” was created that allowed networks to adjust the weights of the neurons and thereby learn much more effectively. Backpropagation changes the weights in the neural network, allowing the network to better capture the actual patterns within the data.
Deep Neural Networks
Deep neural networks take the basic form of the MLP and make it larger by adding more hidden layers in the middle of the model. So instead of there being an input layer, a hidden layer, and an output layer, there are many hidden layers in the middle and the outputs of one hidden layer become the inputs for the next hidden layer until the data has made it all the way through the network and been returned.
The multiple hidden layers of a deep neural network are able to interpret more complex patterns than the traditional multilayer perceptron. Different layers of the deep neural network learn the patterns of different parts of the data. For instance, if the input data consists of images, the first portion of the network might interpret the brightness or darkness of pixels while the later layers will pick out shapes and edges that can be used to recognize objects in the image.
Different Types Of Neural Networks
There are various types of neural networks, and each of the various neural network types has its own advantages and disadvantages (and therefore their own use cases). The type of deep neural network described above is the most common type of neural network, and it is often referred to as a feedforward neural network.
One variation on neural networks is the Recurrent Neural Network (RNN). In the case of Recurrent Neural Networks, looping mechanisms are used to hold information from previous states of analysis, meaning that they can interpret data where the order matters. RNNs are useful in deriving patterns from sequential/chronological data. Recurrent Neural Networks can be either unidirectional or bidirectional. In the case of a bi-directional neural network, the network can take information from later in the sequence as well as earlier portions of the sequence. Since the bi-directional RNN takes more information into account, it’s better able to draw the right patterns from the data.
A Convolutional Neural Network is a special type of neural network that is adept at interpreting the patterns found within images. A CNN operates by passing a filter over the pixels of the image and achieving a numerical representation of the pixels within the image, which it can then analyze for patterns. A CNN is structured so that the convolutional layers which pull the pixels out of the image come first, and then the densely connected feed-forward layers come, those that will actually learn to recognize objects, come after this.
Supervised vs Unsupervised Learning
In machine learning, most tasks can be easily categorized into one of two different classes: supervised learning problems or unsupervised learning problems. In supervised learning, data has labels or classes appended to it, while in the case of unsupervised learning the data is unlabeled. Let’s take a close look at why this distinction is important and look at some of the algorithms associated with each type of learning.
Supervised Vs. Unsupervised Learning
Most machine learning tasks are in the domain of supervised learning. In supervised learning algorithms, the individual instances/data points in the dataset have a class or label assigned to them. This means that the machine learning model can learn to distinguish which features are correlated with a given class and that the machine learning engineer can check the model’s performance by seeing how many instances were properly classified. Classification algorithms can be used to discern many complex patterns, as long as the data is labeled with the proper classes. For instance, a machine-learning algorithm can learn to distinguish different animals from each other based off of characteristics like “whiskers”, “tail”, “claws”, etc.
In contrast to supervised learning, unsupervised learning involves creating a model that is able to extract patterns from unlabeled data. In other words, the computer analyzes the input features and determines for itself what the most important features and patterns are. Unsupervised learning tries to find the inherent similarities between different instances. If a supervised learning algorithm aims to place data points into known classes, unsupervised learning algorithms will examine the features common to the object instances and place them into groups based on these features, essentially creating its own classes.
Examples of supervised learning algorithms are Linear Regression, Logistic Regression, K-nearest Neighbors, Decision Trees, and Support Vector Machines.
Meanwhile, some examples of unsupervised learning algorithms are Principal Component Analysis and K-Means Clustering.
Supervised Learning Algorithm Examples
Linear Regression is an algorithm that takes two features and plots out the relationship between them. Linear Regression is used to predict numerical values in relation to other numerical variables. Linear Regression has the equation of Y = a +bX, where b is the line’s slope and a is where y crosses the X-axis.
Logistic Regression is a binary classification algorithm. The algorithm examines the relationship between numerical features and finds the probability that the instance can be classified into one of two different classes. The probability values are “squeezed” towards either 0 or 1. In other words, strong probabilities will approach 0.99 while weak probabilities will approach 0.
K-Nearest Neighbors assigns a class to new data points based on the assigned classes of some chosen amount of neighbors in the training set. The number of neighbors considered by the algorithm is important, and too few or too many neighbors can misclassify points.
Decision Trees are a type of classification and regression algorithm. A decision tree operates by splitting up a dataset down into smaller and smaller portions until the subsets can’t be split any further and what results is a tree with nodes and leaves. The nodes are where decisions about data points are made using different filtering criteria, while the leaves are the instances that have been assigned some label (a data point that has been classified). Decision tree algorithms are capable of handling both numerical and categorical data. Splits are made in the tree on specific variables/features.
Support Vector Machines are a classification algorithm that operates by drawing hyperplanes, or lines of separation, between data points. Data points are separated into classes based upon which side of the hyperplane they are on. Multiple hyperplanes can be drawn across a plane, diving a dataset into multiple classes. The classifier will try to maximize the distance between the diving hyperplane and the points on either side of the plane, and the greater the distance between the line and the points, the more confident the classifier is.
Unsupervised Learning Algorithms
Principal Component Analysis is a technique used for dimensionality reduction, meaning that the dimensionality or complexity of the data is represented in a simpler fashion. The Principal Component Analysis algorithm finds new dimensions for the data that are orthogonal. While the dimensionality of the data is reduced, the variance between the data should be preserved as much as possible. What this means in practical terms is that it takes the features in the dataset and distills them down into fewer features that represent most of the data.
K-Means Clustering is an algorithm that automatically groups data points into clusters based on similar features. The patterns within the dataset are analyzed and the datapoints split into groups based on these patterns. Essentially, K-means creates its own classes out of unlabeled data. The K-Means algorithm operates by assigning centers to the clusters, or centroids, and moving the centroids until the optimal position for the centroids is found. The optimal position will be one where the distance between the centroids to the surrounding data points within the class is minimized. The “K” in K-means clustering refers to how many centroids have been chosen.
To close, let’s quickly go over the key differences between supervised and unsupervised learning.
As we previously discussed, in supervised learning tasks the input data is labeled and the number of classes are known. Meanwhile, input data is unlabeled and the number of classes not known in unsupervised learning cases. Unsupervised learning tends to be less computationally complex, whereas supervised learning tends to be more computationally complex. While supervised learning results tend to be highly accurate, unsupervised learning results tend to be less accurate/moderately accurate.
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