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Leading NLP Teams

Season 6, episode 8 of the DataTalks.Club podcast with Ivan Bilan

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The transcripts are edited for clarity, sometimes with AI. If you notice any incorrect information, let us know.

Alexey: This week, we'll talk about NLP teams. We have a special guest today, Ivan. We already had Ivan as a guest a few weeks ago, where he also talked about NLP and gave an introduction to the topic. One of the things he talked about was an NLP team – who is part of an NLP team and their roles. Ivan posted an outline of members of NLP teams on LinkedIn and they got a lot of engagement and attention. So we thought it would be cool to spend some time talking more about this in general – about leading NLP teams, members of the team and so on. Ivan works as an engineering manager at Personio. Do I understand correctly that you do not manage an NLP team right now? (1:54)

Ivan: No, not right now. (2:43)

Ivan’s role at Personio

Alexey: But you used to. So you are currently working on identity and access management. This is what Personio is doing, right? (2:24)

Ivan: Yes. Personio is an HR platform. My team, specifically, is responsible for basically everything related to the login experience of the users and also the access rights. In an HR platform, there’s a lot of personal data that we handle, so we have to make sure everything is as secure as possible and that it adheres to all the standards. We are an internal product team, so we provide tools for other teams at the company. (2:55)

Ivan: We have our own tooling around access rights that other teams can use, which can help them in their features and their parts of the application. They can check whether a specific user is supposed to have access to a document of some sort or to someone’s salary, to name some examples. A manager is only supposed to see salaries of his subordinates, but not the other way around – things like that. (2:55)

Alexey: Yeah, that must be quite a complex problem. Ivan’s main technical interests include building microservices for data-intensive applications, MLOps for NLP and deep learning research. We'll talk about some of these things today. Welcome to our event. (4:05)

Ivan: Thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to answering the questions. (4:27)

Ivan’s background

Alexey: Before we go into our main topic of NLP teams, let's start with your background. Can you tell us about your career journey so far? (4:32)

Ivan: Yeah, sure. I come from Ukraine and studied general linguistics for a while as I lived there. I moved to Munich about 10 years ago and decided to pick up computational linguistics, so it was a continuation of what I was doing before. Computational linguistics, as a field, was relatively new back then. It was centered primarily on machine learning and how that can be applied to text understanding and text analysis in general. Back then it was still done with Perl and eventually it moved into Python. Now it’s sort of the industry standard. (4:39)

Ivan: Over time, I worked actually on different projects and in different teams. I did not only work on NLP and AI. My first jobs were in building interfaces for desktop apps, so I worked a lot with C#, C++, etc. Eventually, I worked on web scraping for quite a while. Then I moved into data engineering and was working on ETL pipelines with Spark and Hadoop. For a while, I also worked as a data scientist, which was at a company called Trust, where we were working on aspect-based sentiment analysis, on text summarization, and a few other NLP tasks. This is where the core of my NLP knowledge comes from. (4:39)

Ivan: That was super challenging because we had to support our solutions for 23 different languages and some of those languages are super complex. I think the most complex languages I worked with would probably be Japanese and Thai – Asian languages that are very, very different compared to regular English NLP that you would normally do. So that was quite interesting. (4:39)

Ivan: Eventually, I went into management. I actually got another degree in Technology Management here in Munich, at the CDTM. I've been managing teams for a bit over two years. I managed data engineering teams, NLP teams and now it's more of a web product-based team at Personio. (4:39)

Alexey: Interesting. Do you still use Perl? (7:22)

Ivan: No, not really, [laughs] Yeah, it's a language that's hard to read. It also depends on who writes the code, because the formatting there is not very strict. (7:25)

Alexey: I remember the day when I needed to figure out how a Perl program works. There was a web scraper written in Perl that the company where I worked used. It dumped data in a specific format that was only possible to read from Perl. So I had to hack a program that reads this and converts it to JSON. It really messed with my brain. I'm not the same person as before after doing that. [laughs] (7:40)

Ivan: Yeah. Perl is actually a very powerful language. I know it's still used in cybersecurity to some extent. It's really good for salting passwords and stuff like that. But I actually haven't worked with it for quite a few years. It's probably changed a lot. (8:10)

Studying technical management

Alexey: You mentioned that you also got a degree in technical management. Was it a Master’s degree? (8:33)

Ivan: It was sort of an honors’ degree. It's like an additional program to Master’s that you can take here at CDTM, which is the Center for Digital Technology Management here in Munich. It's part of both LMU and EU. So if you study at LMU, you can get an additional degree there. That was very interesting because it was very hands-on. It included a couple of internships. (8:42)

Ivan: I had an internship at a company that was selling satellite images. So I actually worked on spectral analysis of satellite images, which was quite interesting. I also worked at a cybersecurity company called Montego, which is also quite fascinating. Yeah, it was very hands-on. You learn a lot from it – how to manage projects. You also get a really good network built out of that. A lot of startups and startup founders come out of CDTM here in Munich and in Berlin. (8:42)

Alexey: That's cool. So you studied project management there. What else did you study there? Team management and people management as well? (9:50)

Ivan: Yeah, organizational management – all of those topics. (9:57)

Alexey: So are these things that people can actually learn at university or is it like learning to swim by reading a book? (10:01)

Ivan: [laughs] As I said, it was super hands-on and that was cool because all of the presentations and courses that we had were then led by some CEOs or founders of different companies. They would just bring their own perspective on how they approach organization management, or how they built up a startup that is now worth a few billion. So that was very, very fascinating to do. When I was there, I don't think I had to read any books. It was mostly learning from the experience of others. (10:09)

Alexey: I remember before I became manager, I was reading books about it – books or articles – and it didn't make much sense to me. To me, it read like, “Okay, do things well and things will work out.” Something like that. But now, when I already have this experience and I go back to read this stuff, it all of a sudden makes much more sense. I guess this is just one of the things. So, that's cool that things like that happen and you can just go there. Did you need to take breaks between your work to study? (10:46)

Ivan: No, I tried to do everything at once. [laughs] I was working part time and also studying computational linguistics and technology management. (11:19)

Managing a software team

Alexey: Yeah, that's really cool. I'm also really curious about your transitions and your career paths. You did quite a few different things. You've worked as a data scientist and you managed NLP teams. And now you manage a “usual” software engineering team. I'm wondering – what led to this decision? (11:31)

Ivan: It was mainly driven by my career goals. I want to eventually work on a higher level as a manager – either the director level or CTO. I think it's very important to have a very good grasp on different parts of software engineering. I already have a lot of experience with AI and now, I’m relearning things or reminding myself how to manage a team that works on a web application. There are still many things that are the same. (11:54)

Ivan: I'm still doing more or less the same tasks. I'm managing the productivity of the team, talking a lot about CI/CD, which is important not just for sustained engineering, but for AI as well. I’m also talking to them about the availability of the web apps that we are working on now. It's the same topic of availability of AI models – how fast the users actually get the input from AI models or from web apps. That’s basically, more or less, the same. (11:54)

Ivan: The overarching topic is observability. I think observability is important for any team. Not just AI or software engineering. We used to have a lot of dashboards that we looked at when we were working on NLP models and we are doing the same thing now, but we just look at different metrics. But observability is still a big part of what we are doing. (11:54)

NLP teams

Alexey: That's interesting. Thanks for sharing. Coming back to our topic of NLP teams – how would you define an NLP team? You just said that many of the things that you're doing right now are the same, even though the team you manage is not specifically an NLP team or a data science team. It's not a data team at all. It's just a team of software engineers. How is an NLP team different from the team you have now? And what is an NLP team? (13:36)

Ivan: Yeah, good question. It's more of an industry question. Do we even have separate designation for NLP teams? I think maybe a few years ago, this wasn't the case. You would just have a data science team and everything data science is done there – either it’s vision, NLP, or just regular data analysis. I think now, in recent years, we are branching off more and more, because NLP has also become more and more popular in the last few years. Now you see companies that have a dedicated NLP team – one that works solely on NLP tasks. (14:07)

Ivan: I am actually a big proponent of having cross-disciplinary teams. I would prefer to have a team that incorporates data scientists, NLP engineers, and ideally a data engineer, maybe even an infrastructure engineer. This is something I had a lot of success with in my previous teams. We really had all the talent gathered in one team, and we had all the knowledge that we needed to succeed there. But still, as I said, some companies still do it – they have a completely separate NLP team that works on delivering NLP pipelines. (14:07)

Ivan: It's good when that team is fully on it, meaning they also are responsible for deploying into production, monitoring, and everything else – this is great. But that's not always the case. I also know of cases where it'll be teams just building a prototype in Jupyter Notebook and then they just give it away to the data engineering team or the ML engineers, who then put it in production. What differentiates NLP teams from other teams, I think, is mainly the core tasks – working with text data and then delivering a system around it that produces some insights for the user, whether it’s classification or a chatbot or some text generation, or things like that. (14:07)

NLP engineers

Alexey: So an NLP team doesn't need to have an NLP engineer? As long as a team works on some NLP-related tasks, such as a chatbot or a customer service bot, then it becomes an NLP team, right? (16:19)

Ivan: Yeah. I mean, that's another question. What is an NLP engineer? I've been asking myself in the industry – is that an established role? (16:32)

Alexey: I wanted to ask about that as well. (16:44)

Ivan: Yeah. I don’t think that it is still fully established. I still see job ads that just say, “data analyst” or “data scientist,” but the description is everything related to NLP. So I hope the industry takes a step towards defining those roles a bit more. That's something I was trying to deal with and I showed in the previous presentation. As you mentioned, I shared on LinkedIn a post where I was trying to define those roles, “What are their responsibilities?” and “What are the skills that they need to have?” (16:45)

Ivan: For NLP teams themselves, I think an NLP engineer is very important. An NLP engineer is someone who has the experience and knowledge of working specifically with NLP tasks and the data science part that specifically works with text. Ideally – this is not always the case – but ideally, this is someone who also has some linguistic knowledge. Meaning that they at least have some applied linguistics, or at least the basics of general linguistics, because that's super useful to have. It's not a must these days, but it is very useful. (16:45)

Ivan: Thinking back to my career, when I worked as a data scientist – data scientists was my title, but I was sort of an NLP engineer – looking back at that time, I think linguistics really helped. I was working on the very hard problems of parsing text. Especially in different languages, without knowing those building blocks of how to do proper dependency parsing, for example, or how to do tokenization in languages that don't have any full stops or spaces – like a tide, it's just a wall of text. So that really helped. I think without linguistic knowledge, my team and I wouldn't be able to solve those issues so easily. (16:45)

Becoming an NLP engineer

Alexey: Let's say a data team doesn’t have NLP engineers – people who specialize in NLP tasks – if this team doesn't have such people, how should they go about picking up those skills? Should they be a data scientist who goes and learns about linguistics? Or how should they do that? (18:53)

Ivan: Yeah, that's a really hard question, actually. Because the question itself is – at the current stage, do we need those linguistics people now? There are so many things now that allow you to really get by without understanding linguistics. Just think about GPT-3 – where anyone can do it. You don't even need to know how to do data science itself. You just use the GPT-3 prompt and then you have something built off of it. (19:16)

Ivan: It depends on what tasks you're working on. If you are working on more regular NLP tasks that everyone else is working on, such as basic sentiment analysis or summarization and things like that – most of the time, you probably can get by without any linguistic knowledge. But if you're going more into specific tasks, like relation extraction or information extraction, and especially if you're starting to work with languages that are not so widely covered by research in the space, then it really helps to have linguistic knowledge. (19:16)

Ivan: How you get that knowledge is a good question. There are quite a few resources online, of course. You can learn that by yourself. I wouldn't recommend just going and learning general linguistics. That’s probably not going to be super helpful. There are courses and resources that are more specific to NLP itself. I think there are quite a few things, for example, around spaCy – I think they have a lot of tutorials around that training phase. You can just really go and learn NLP-related linguistic knowledge. (19:16)

Alexey: Okay. So you should focus more on NLP and computational linguistics rather than generic linguistics. Then, you also mentioned that you can pick up a library like spaCy or Hugging Face and you learn that. Then, along with learning this library, you should also pick up some necessary NLP knowledge, right? (21:10)

Ivan: Yeah. What I'm saying can also seem like heresy to some people. [laughs] I know there are two camps of NLP researchers. One camp says, “We can do everything with AI and we don't need linguistics.” And then there's another camp that specifically advocates for us to first learn linguistics properly, and then apply AI. (21:33)

Ivan: It really depends on what you're doing. If you're doing research at universities, I think knowing linguistics will definitely benefit you, because that's probably one of the avenues that will help improve current AI. Someone who knows both linguistics and AI very well is going to build a better language model than someone who only knows AI. (21:33)

Computer vision

Alexey: Also, maybe if you compare – in computer vision, you have old school computer vision, which is about extracting features with all these things like Bag of Visual Words, Swift. I don't know much about these things, but I know that these things exist – like old school computer vision. Then there is new school which is just, “We don't care about these things. Just throw everything in a neural network, it will figure this out and work.” And interestingly, it does work. (22:31)

Ivan: Yeah, it does work. Yeah. That's another can of worms that I don't think we want to open. “What is more complicated, vision or text analysis.” Right? Maybe it works because vision is a bit more definitive in some way than text. Because with text there are endless amounts of sentences you can generate in English and that's only in English. You have so many languages – there are 5000 languages or something like that. I don't want to open this can of worms. I'm not saying that text is easier than vision. With vision, it's very hard as well. But I think that, in order for us to succeed with text analysis, we still need linguistics. For sure. (23:04)

Alexey: Okay. So would you say that an NLP engineer is somebody who has a data science background – someone who is a data scientist with some knowledge of NLP and computational linguistics? Would this be a correct description? (23:55)

Ivan: Yeah. I would say so. (24:10)

Alexey: So, it’s like you said – you were hired as a data scientist, but your task was working on NLP things. (24:12)

Ivan: Yeah, mostly. (24:20)

NLP engineer vs ML engineer

Alexey: So, what's the difference between an NLP engineer and a machine learning engineer? Is an NLP engineer an engineer in the same sense as a machine learning engineer? Do they care more about the engineering aspect or more the training models aspect? (24:21)

Ivan: That’s a very good question. I hope that in the future, they will be more or less the same, because I think that both parts are important. How I've seen it so far is that NLP engineers are – at least in the case of the team I worked at – we were doing a lot of engineering. It was really a lot of pure engineering where we were optimizing everything, and not just optimizing training but also optimizing inference. What we were doing less of was productionizing of the model itself – the deployment itself. That was mostly done with the help of an ML engineer or a data engineer. (24:36)

Ivan: I've also had a lot of interviews when hiring NLP engineers, data engineers and ML engineers, that there is sort of a division that I see where ML engineers themselves think of themselves as DevOps for AI – they are responsible for deploying the models, figuring out how to do blue/green deployment of an AI model. This is a challenge that I think NLP engineers are not always prepared to solve. (24:36)

Conversational designers

Alexey: Yeah, interesting. We've talked about linguistics, and that somebody who's an engineer needs to know linguistics. Do we need people who specialize only in linguistics? People who don’t only have this NLP knowledge and know how to call methods from spaCy, but those who actually had education as linguists? Do we need people like that in the team? (24:49)

Ivan: Yeah, for sure. There are some specific tasks that would really benefit from that. I think that in the last two years, there was a new role forming in the world of data science, called “conversational designer”. It's basically a person who is responsible for making the user experience, and the flow of how the Chatbot interacts with the user, feel more realistic. Conversational designers, from what I see, are mostly people who come from a more pure, either linguistic background, or some societal studies. (26:19)

Ivan: That knowledge is really important – how do you properly form an utterance that the Chatbot can use? Or how does a chatbot react to some specific questions? Things like that. And that's what conversational designers these days work with. From what I've seen – I have a small subset of people I know who are actually conversational designers – but from those I know, they mostly work on defining that flow without having to code that much. They're less of a coder and less of an NLP engineer, but instead specifically look into how you can build out a really nice experience around talking to a chatbot. (26:19)

Alexey: So I guess it's similar to what we have in general software engineering – product designers and UX designers? Except here, they don't focus on the general UX (user experience), but instead, they focus on the conversational part – the interactions with the chatbot. (24:50)

Ivan: Yeah, yeah – that's a really good comparison. Yeah. (28:06)

Linguistics outside of chatbots

Alexey: Okay, interesting. Not all NLP teams work on chatbots – there are teams that work on other things, like you mentioned, like information extraction, and I don't remember what else. So there are areas where we may need to do something with text understanding and things like that. Do we need linguists in the teams that work in these areas as well? (28:12)

Ivan: Good question. It really depends on what area of research you're working in, or what specific tasks you work on. I think it wouldn't hurt if you have someone who knows linguistics well. As I mentioned before, if you have problems where you really need to think about, “How do you parse a sentence?” or “How do you get something out of the text?” That's where a linguist would really help. I think, ideally, you would have this NLP engineer role that has both skills incorporated. Someone who knows linguistics enough to be able to apply it, but on the other side also knows the engineering part behind it to effectively apply it to the problem that we're working on. (28:38)

When does a team need an NLP engineer or a linguist?

Alexey: As you mentioned, when a team starts working on an NLP task, they don't necessarily need to immediately get this NLP engineer with linguistics knowledge because you can get quite far just by using a library. Let's say a team starts working on some NLP tasks and they get by just going and getting Hugging Face, spaCy and start using that. At which point do they need to hire a linguist or an NLP engineer? How do you decide that? How do you see that they need somebody? (29:36)

Ivan: That's a good question. I guess it also depends on what approach they choose. If the problem that you have can be solved by pure AI, then I think that there is probably no need for specific linguistic knowledge in the team. But not all problems can be solved with AI. That's why in the industry, a lot of problems are still solved with robust systems or some statistical approaches. Especially if you need to build features or do feature engineering, I think there it would be very helpful to have a linguist, or at least an NLP engineer who knows what to look for, how to build features, and so on. (30:11)

Ivan: So it really depends on the problem. We are moving into a direction where more and more problems can be solved with just throwing the problem into a neural network. It's a question of where we are going to go in the next few years. I think GPT-3 showed one thing – that you can just throw raw power and a bit of data into a neural network and will have something amazing working. But the question is, “Where does it end? How far can we go? How many more learning parameters can we fit into a language model?” (30:11)

The future of NLP

Alexey: It's funny that you mentioned that. We have a question. “What is the future of NLP?” Now we have libraries like Hugging Face or spaCy which simplify things a lot. The API of these libraries is quite good, you can just take and use it. Do you think having access to libraries like this will remove the need to write NLP pipelines from scratch? Or not? (31:47)

Ivan: Well, yes. As I said, for many tasks you can get by with those things. Those tools that you mentioned are democratizing the industry. They are open sourcing everything and this is great. This is enabling smaller teams or smaller startups to work more easily on AI. Whether that will fully remove the need of writing NLP pipelines? I don't think it will. It's actually very funny. I had a very similar conversation five years ago and back then everyone was talking about Auto ML. “Auto ML is going to replace data scientists. Because of Auto ML we're not going to need to build NLP models.” That is still not the case, right? Five years have passed and we're still building NLP pipelines. (32:21)

Ivan: I think this will probably stay the same. We will still have to build NLP pipelines, because the complexity will just grow and grow. As complexity grows, you probably won't be able to catch up with having high level tools that always incorporate the latest thing. You will still need to use NLP pipeline and build NLP pipelines in order to be able to have an advantage or an edge. NLP papers and AI papers come out every week. New things will come out very fast and the faster you react to them, the better. (32:21)

Ivan: Having an NLP engineering team that can easily take some new paper and incorporate ideas – not the whole thing, but at least some ideas – into their current solution will be super helpful. That's probably not always possible with these open source tools. (32:21)

NLP pipelines

Alexey: In spaCy, there is a method that just “makes things good” and then it just works. But internally somewhere, it still has an NLP pipeline, right? Potentially you can go deeper and try to uncover that and also adjust it to whatever you need. By the way, speaking of NLP pipelines, I don't think we mentioned what an NLP pipeline is. Can you tell us what it actually is and why Hugging Face and spaCy remove the need of building them? (34:21)

Ivan: Yeah, good question. It depends on how you define it. My definition would be – if you are an NLP team building an NLP pipeline – that already starts with data. That starts with data annotation. That starts with generating good quality data and then refining it. The next step is, if you use AI, you basically build up. Let's say you take something like T5, or some other language model, and then you have to make it work for your specific task. You basically do some task engineering around it, and you make it work with your specific data input. (34:57)

Ivan: Then you also have to define the outcome of that. Depending on how much you want to play around with the language model itself, you can also work on neural network improvements for your specific task in between. When you have that, there's also testing. Testing NLP models is very important. After that comes productionizing. So how do you deliver some kind of binary model that can be used for inference? How do you deploy it? Then in the end, how do you do observability around it? For me, that is the NLP pipeline. It starts with data and ends with “How do you observe how your model performs in production? (34:57)

Alexey: What you described – data annotation, data quality, then task engineering and testing the model, then productionizing the model – spaCy and Hugging Face don't seem to remove the need for that. You still have to do all these tasks. It's not like you just press a button and all of a sudden have high-quality annotated data, right? (36:29)

Ivan: Yeah, what they remove is the task engineering for the most part. You don't have to tinker around with the behind-the-scenes implementation of a specific language model. You just use it from the tools themselves. (36:50)

Alexey: What I had in mind when I heard “NLP pipeline” (I remember using this) was the Stanford core NLP library, which is in Java. It's a pretty old library. Then there’s a class called “pipeline” or “NLP pipeline”, I don’t remember. In this pipeline, it's first about splitting the sentences. So you have a paragraph and in the paragraph, you have different sentences. You want to split it to have separate sentences. Then you tokenize. You take the sentence and break it into multiple tokens. Then perhaps you want to remove punctuation or not remove punctuation. You also want to do some lemmatization, stemming – all these things. This is what I thought of when I heard “NLP pipeline”. (37:02)

Ivan: That is what’s referred to as “pre-processing.” I guess I just forgot to mention that. So you have the data and then how do you make the language model, or whatever role based system you're using, understand the data? That's where the step of pre-processing comes in – this tokenization, lemmatization. You don't always need all of the steps. (37:54)

Ivan: For current language models, you barely need any of those steps anymore. It really depends on the task. You're right – these problems are mostly solved. They are mostly solved in tools like spaCy and Hugging Face, where you don't really have to think anymore about “How do you tokenize a sentence?” It's done almost totally automatically there. (37:54)


Alexey: What about tools like GPT-3? I guess they also remove some of the steps from this pipeline? They make it easier, right? (38:45)

Ivan: Yeah, GPT-3 is on a whole different level. You don't need to do anything, really. The idea of GPT-3 is that it’s a smart lookup table. It has seen, I think, like 10% of the whole internet. That's what the data set was used to train it. It has seen so much data that you could say that it knows NLP is. It knows how to solve some of its tasks. It knows what tokenization is. It just has somehow learned it. It's like an internal black box. We don't know how it actually works. (38:55)

Ivan: All you need to do for GPT-3 is write a prompt. For example, if you want to do sentiment analysis, you just write “The day is nice.” Then you write the tag: positive. Then you write another sentence and say “I'm sad.” Then you write a tag, but you don't write whether it's positive or negative – the model will just autocomplete it for you. It just knows somehow that you are asking it to do sentiment analysis, which is insane. (38:55)

Ivan: There are even super ridiculous things in GPT-3. There was a paper recently where they were exploring “How well does GPT-3 do translations?” Basically, in the original GPT-3 paper, they just had a prompt, “Please translate this sentence from English to French and then give the sentence.” Then the researchers changed the prompt to “Please translate this English sentence as if you are a very good French translator.” Then it gives you a much better quality of translation, which just blows your mind that this is possible. (38:55)

Alexey: I think you showed in your presentation that it's possible to rewrite a usual sentence as if it was written by a lawyer. Right? (40:46)

Ivan: Right. That's correct. (40:57)

Alexey: That's also insane. So it's translating from normal English to legalese. (40:58)

Ivan: Yeah. I mean, it's a miracle of these GPT-3 massive language models – that they somehow have internalized all of those things without us having to teach them what tokenization is or even what translation is. They just somehow learned it. The question now is “How far can we get with this? Can we just get away with throwing more compute power, bigger GPUs, and more data and expect it to work better and better?” (41:08)

Alexey: And “When does it become creepy?” I feel like it already kind of gives me goosebumps when I watch some of these demos. As you said, it's basically a big lookup table and it probably already knows everything – what is there on the internet about you, about me, about everyone who is watching this, right? If you ever left a footprint somewhere on the internet, it's on it and it knows. (41:40)

Ivan: Yeah, probably. (42:03)

Alexey: I remember that I’ve seen a demo that shows it's possible to get emails of people. (42:05)

Ivan: Yeah. Right. This was even possible with GPT-2. You could just start writing an address and it would autocomplete it with the actual name of someone who lives at that address, which is crazy. (42:11)

Alexey: That's creepy. But I guess if you use GPT-3, then you still have this component of task engineering. It's just, in its own way… (42:24)

Ivan: It's very simplified now. You don't need to do that much. You just need to figure out what’s the best way to tell the model to do your task and how much data you actually have to give it. You could even get by with just a few examples for some tasks. For more complicated tasks, I can imagine you can still need a very well-annotated data set. (42:33)

Problems of GPT-3

Alexey: But it's not cheap, right? It's expensive. You cannot just use it and rely on GPT-3 completely. (42:57)

Ivan: Yeah. I mean, I don't know. They are trying to open source it now or something. I don't know. But I think you still have to pay for tokens in order to be able to use it. (43:05)

Alexey: So, for each request you need to pay. (43:14)

Ivan: Yeah – for each request. So it is definitely expensive. It's not just a problem with the fact that you have to pay for it, it's also a problem that you have zero control of what it's doing and why it's doing it. Like, let’s say if someone finds a way to bias to GPT-3 very easily, then they can easily reproduce that on your solution that you've built based on GPT-3. You have zero control of that. That's why everyone doesn’t jump on this. (43:17)

Ivan: Not everyone's using GPT-3. I think it's super good when you want to build an MVP of some sort. You can very quickly use GPT-3 to build out some kind of demo and then sort of validate it. I've seen a lot of companies do that. Basically, after they validated their demo with something easy like GPT-whatever, GPT-2 even. They just say, “Okay, now let’s build something that we are in control of. We’ll build our NLP pipeline, we’ll know how it works and we have control over it to some extent.” (43:17)

Alexey: I guess you can use it for annotating your data as well – for collecting your initial version of the dataset. (44:30)

Ivan: Yeah. I guess. I actually haven't seen anyone using GPT-3 for data annotation. I don't know how well that actually works. (44:37)

Alexey: I think we have a pilot project on that. I think it worked well. I wasn't involved in that project, I just heard that we tried it and it worked well. We basically trained a simple model on the output of GPT-3. Something like logistic regression or something like that – something super simple. It was a classification problem. (44:45)

Ivan: Nice. Yeah. I didn't even think about that. (45:05)

Alexey: Because writing all these rules for extracting data – for information extraction – can be difficult. The company where I work, OLX, is a place where people can exchange goods. It's basically an online marketplace. You have listings and the listings have descriptions. You want to extract some information from there. You mentioned that information extraction is a complex task. So we tried to use GPT-3, I think, for extracting this and then using these things as labels and then feeding it into a SQL model. But I only saw demos – I wasn't taking part in that application. (45:10)

Ivan: Interesting. (45:49)

Does GPT-3 make everything obsolete?

Alexey: I think we talked about this already and we kind of mentioned that. The question we have is, “Now we have this GPT-3. Does it mean that we no longer need things like Hugging Face, spaCy, and so on? Would you still use Hugging Face if you had access to GPT-3 now?” (45:50)

Ivan: I would say, yes, because GPT-3 still isn't able to solve everything. It is able to solve most of the tasks to a good extent. But the question is, “Can it actually solve everything you need for it to be used in production – for it to be actually given to the clients?” I don’t think that's the case right now. Even if you do that, there's a lot of danger that it will just go rogue on you and you have no idea how to control it. It may become biased to some specific user group or something like that. (46:10)

Alexey: Yeah, I’m wondering what would happen then. Let’s say Open AI finds out that it's broken because somebody messed up with it and they decided, “Okay, now it's bad. Let's shut it down.” Then to everyone who relies on this, “Yeah, sorry.” (46:56)

Ivan: Yeah. The open source engineering group called Open AI is basically working on rebuilding GPT-3 from scratch. So now we have things like GPT-J, and GPT-Neo. It's like smaller versions of GPT-3, but they are fully open source. Anyone can use them. You can also look up sort of how they built it. So that's a step in the right direction. I think this will always be the case. Even if Open AI comes out with GPT-4 and it's again proprietary, there will again be someone who will be able eventually to crack the code and open source it for everyone. (47:16)

What NLP actually is?

Alexey: Yeah, interesting. Another question we have is “What do you think NLP is more about? Is it more about writing better pipelines and improving these pipelines and then implementing some research papers? Or is it more about theoretical linguistic knowledge and its application?” I think at the beginning you mentioned that it can get quite far without much linguistics knowledge. So what do you think NLP actually is? Is it about applying these libraries? Or is it about using linguistics? (48:04)

Ivan: Yeah. That's a good question. I think it depends on whether you're talking about industry or academia. If we're talking about industry – for smaller companies or small startups, there's really no financial incentive to innovate in terms of linguistic application of NLP. They're more interested in building these NLP pipelines and building a product. That's where tools like high efficiency come in, which help them a lot. (48:39)

Ivan: But if we’re talking about bigger companies, such as Google – I know that at Google Brain, for example, there are people who are working on linguistics applications to NLP. A lot of academia also works on that, because from an academic perspective, we will not advance NLP if we only work on building bigger AI models. We really need to see how else we can incorporate linguistic knowledge into AI research. That's where academia is actually doing a lot. A lot of universities are working on that specific part. (48:39)

Alexey: So basically you are saying that the future of NLP is not just throwing more hardware at GPT-3, or perhaps a GPT-4 (if it's even a thing), but more like, “Okay, now we learned how to throw hardware at all of the internet and then make the tool learn it. Now, how can we simplify it? How can we achieve a similar thing without having to burn a lot of GPUs?” (49:52)

Ivan: Yeah. You could say there's a race going on now. Organizations like Open AI are trying to push the limits of building bigger and bigger language models, whereas some universities are trying to rely more on linguistics. I don't know what will come out of that, who will win, or if there will even be a winner – maybe it will just always be like that. There's an NLP Research Institute and I know they are exploring a lot about “How do you merge linguistics with AI to build better AI models and better language models?” I think this is the right direction to go into because this will definitely help advance the field. (50:23)

Alexey: This “Allen AI”, they do quite a lot of work in NLP, right? (51:18)

Ivan: Right. The institute is called Allen AI, I think. They also have an open source toolkit called “Allen NLP”. (51:24)

Alexey: I remember seeing competitions on Kaggle from them. It was actually the first Kaggle competition I ever took part in. It was about – in school, you have multiple choice questions, which consist of a question and four answers. The task that they had was “Build a model that would select the right answer.” You have a question and you have four answers. The task was to rank them, basically, to give the correct answer. It was not a usual problem, let's say. It was a lot about indexing Wikipedia and then using this knowledge base to rank all these answers. It was quite a fun one. (51:33)

Ivan: Yeah. AI NLP also incorporates many other things like building knowledge graphs and things like that. That's also part of NLP and AI. (52:25)

Does NLP solve problems better than humans?

Alexey: Yeah. That competition was six years ago. Do you think with all these GPT-3 things – is it a solved problem now? Can we just answer multiple choice questions? Or is it still not a solved problem? (52:40)

Ivan: Yeah, I don't think so. I don't think there is any problem we have fully solved. There are papers that state something like “AI models are as good as humans” or “better than humans”. But this is all evaluated on a very small subset of data. It's really hard to say whether it’s actually true or not. So I wouldn't say we solved all of those problems. Even if we did, we probably would have solved it only for English, but there are so many other languages we need to solve it for. (52:57)

State of language translation

Alexey: Yeah. What do you think about language translation? There is a question that says it seems to be one of the toughest NLP tasks. Do you think we will be able to achieve human-level results in language translation? (53:32)

Ivan: Yeah, good question. I knew someone who worked at DARPA in the US and basically language translation mostly came to us from solving these problems for military purposes. This is where it mostly started, I think. Now you actually have more product-based solutions. You have Google Translate, of course. You also have deepL, which is trying to solve this problem. I think the path to solve it is to try to make it an actual product that can make money. That will get you more funds to put back into research and then improve it even more and more. I think this is the way we are going right now. (53:45)

Ivan: Google is investing a lot into translation. There are other companies investing a lot in that. But we will be able to solve it fully – I don't know, it's hard to say. There are more and more products coming out of that. But, right now, I think if you look at that translation task, we are kind of good for maybe eight to ten languages and that's it. It's mostly European languages and maybe Chinese. It's kind of okay-ish. It can be used, but if you go beyond that – we're far, far away from being able to solve that issue. That mainly comes from the fact that we don't have enough data for it. It's not enough textual data to train AI on. (53:45)

Alexey: But also, I'm quite impressed now with the results I get from Google Translate as a user. I live in Germany where people speak German. My German is not that good. So what I usually do is write something in Google Translate – I usually use English because translating from English to German works much better than translating from Russian to German. Even though now, last year, it works really well from Russian to German as well, even though I think English and German are a lot closer to each other than Russian and German. It still works really well. (55:31)

Alexey: Eight years ago, when I lived in Poland, I needed to translate from Polish to Russian. These are very similar languages – they are very close. But I think what happened internally is they translated first from Polish to English, and from English to Russian, so a lot of things would be lost in translation. But now, if I need to translate something from Polish to Russian, it's very good. Translation from Ukrainian to Russian works as if a person translated it. It works really well. Sometimes I read websites in Ukrainian – there is a lot of content in Russian and some articles in Ukrainian. I would understand Ukrainian, but sometimes it’s just simpler to translate. It works really well – as if it was written in Russian. So that's really impressive. (55:31)

Ivan: Yeah, I think Google Translate actually switched to using language models that they've trained. I don't know how many years ago, but at least four or five. That's where the quality was really visibly much better. Google can do it because they have so much data – they index the whole internet. It's easier for them to just train a language model for it. I think with translations now, the top solutions are all pure AI. I don't think there's much linguistics in that. (56:57)

NLP Pandect

Alexey: But I guess if I try to translate from Russian to some Indian language, then maybe it's not a very common translation pair. Okay. I just noticed that we don't have a lot of time left and there was something I really wanted to ask you. (57:31)

Alexey: I wanted to ask you about your project on your GitHub called “NLP Pandect”. Did I pronounce it correctly? (57:31)

Ivan: Yeah. I guess. I don't know how to pronounce it because it's old Greek. I think it's Pandect. (58:00)

Alexey: Can you tell us more about this project? What is it? (58:06)

Ivan: Yeah, sure. This is something I started last year during lockdown because I was bored [laughs]. The idea was – we all know there are these awesome lists. This is a very typical thing on GitHub. People create a list of things and nice links. So I wanted to do something like that for NLP. There were already some awesome lists for NLP, but I just thought they were a bit bland – there's just a list of URLs. So I tried to make it more user-friendly. (58:08)

Ivan: I came up with this idea to have a different name for it. Pandect means encyclopedia in ancient Greek. I also created some visuals around it. If you go to the end of Pandect on GitHub, all the sections are done with nice fonts and there are all the Greek symbols of gods and things like that. So it sort of gives it a theme. Then I also tried to really fine-grain classification of things to put there. If you go to NLP Pandect, you can just easily search for a specific NLP task and get a list of tutorials, a separate list of books – you can read that – or a separate list of GitHub repositories. I also did an analysis of all NLP tools and all ML tools. All of that you can find there. (58:08)

Ivan: It doesn't end with NLP Pandect as I also work with many other things. I have two more projects related to this. There is also Microservices Pandect. There's a lot of information there about how to build and maintain microservices, and how to do DevOps around them. One that I started more recently is for engineering managers. There's an Engineering Manager Pandect, which incorporates a lot of resources for leadership – “How do you lead technical teams? How do you solve people issues and things like that?” (58:08)

Alexey: Okay, thanks. I just realized there was so much I wanted to ask you. We covered only like half of that. But we talked about other things. So that was fun. Thanks a lot for joining us today. Thanks a lot for sharing everything with us. (1:00:20)

Ivan: Yeah. Thank you for inviting me (1:00:35)

Finding Ivan online

Alexey: By the way, if somebody wants to reach out to you – how can they do that? (1:00:37)

Ivan: Yeah. The best way is to find me on LinkedIn. That's where I’m most active. I'm also on Twitter, but I don't post there that much, so LinkedIn is probably the best way. (1:00:41)

Alexey: Okay, yeah. Thanks a lot. Thanks for joining us today. And thanks, everyone, for asking questions. Have a great rest of your day. (1:00:54)

Ivan: Great. Thanks a lot. (1:01:03)

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